In 2013, New York Times-bestselling author Mac Barnett told me that growing up as an only child, whose time was divided between his father’s and mother’s homes in Castro Valley and Oakland, left him feeling lonely and friendless. Constantly a transplant and never feeling at home, he sought solace and companionship in picture books from the 1950s and ’60s that he found at garage sales. Soon, books by James Marshall, Tomi Ungerer and others sparked his imagination and mirrored his slightly offbeat sense of humor that, as an adult, stops just shy of silliness.
Today, the stories 41-year-old Barnett tells after choosing, during his college years, to become a children’s book writer, are simple tales filled with generosity, curiosity, discovery, delight and, often, buddy style friendships. The narratives follow kid-empowering, upbeat trajectories that travel in tandem with the very real, darker tones of childhood, such as fear, grief, sadness, loss, frustration and longing.
Oakland-based Barnett’s newest children’s picture book, What is Love? (Chronicle Books, Dec. 2021), poses an essential question asked by people of all ages. Paired and enriched by artwork, from Caldecott Honor-winning illustrator Carson Ellis, that manages to be elegiac, whimsical and practical at the same time, the simple fable of a boy’s quest for the definition of love gains stature.
Barnett’s children’s picture books and novels for young readers have been translated into more than 30 languages and sold more than 2 million copies worldwide. The recipient of numerous awards—two Caldecott Honors, three New York Times/New York Public Library Best Illustrated Awards, three E.B. White Read Aloud Awards, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award and others—his collaborations with illustrators are the best examples of positive co-dependent relationships on the planet.
With admission he has no talent for drawing, Barnett says illustrators that include Jon Klassen, Adam Rex, Kevin Cornell, Greg Pizzoli, Christian Robinson and others are essential. What is Love is his first project with Ellis, although the two artists formed a friendship more than a decade ago. “The first time we met, we just talked about picture books for hours,” he says during a phone interview. “Carson is probably my favorite living artist and has been since before I met her. I had posters of her work on my wall in college. It just speaks directly to me on a soul level. We have similar frames of reference, and things that influence her really speak to me. She loves medieval art. She’s very matter of fact, but a mystic. She’s in touch with deep mysteries of the universe but in a plain-spoken, wise way.”
In the book, a young boy asks his grandmother, “What is love?” She gathers him in an embrace and, despite being old and wise—or more likely, because she is old and wise—she declines to answer and suggests he might find the definition of love by venturing out into the world.
“So I went,” the boy declares. Ellis’ soft-edged art shows him leaving a plush green verdant landscape; grandmother sits by a pink-toned cottage while waving; wafts of smoke rise from the home’s chimney and two black birds fly high in the soft blue sky.
The boy encounters a parade of people to whom he poses his question. A fisherman tells him love is a glimmering, elusive fish you catch, and “if you know what you’re doing, you give it a kiss and throw it back in the sea.” The boy says fish are slimy and taste bad and have “creepy eyes.” The fisherman sighs and replies, “You don’t understand.”
What follows is a series of metaphoric answers that, upon the boy asking for clarity, receive the same “you do not understand” response. Adults have little time or lack patience for explaining why love to the actor is applause, to the carpenter is a house, to the soldier is a blade and to others is a sports car, donut, ring, maple in summer, “pebble right here” or a list created by a poet that is so long the boy says, “I don’t have time to listen to that!”
In the end, the boy—now a man—returns to the house he shares with his grandmother. He digs his toes into the garden soil, smells dinner cooking, hears the bark of his dog. Asked by his grandmother if he has found an answer to his question, he holds her close and says, “Yes.”
Barnett wrote the text for the book in 2018 while on a trip to Italy with the woman who is now his wife, Taylor Norman Barnett. In his suitcase was a ring, but not a clear plan as to when he would propose marriage. “It was written the day after we got engaged to be married. So love was on my mind,” he says. “We had just come in from Genoa, and we were in Florence. One thing I love about Italy is going to different cities and seeing how everything changes from region to region. When you’re walking around and going to museums in Genoa, it’s clear that it’s a port city. The symbolic language you see in art and architecture is all based on the sea. It’s all maritime stuff; you see giant clams that were sculpted on a staircase to show this was a rich-man’s house.”
“In Florence,” he says, “everything is so tied to the land and to agriculture and textiles. So the symbolic language of wealth, power and love, it flips to agricultural or it’s based on the weave of somebody’s fabric that will tell you so much. I thought, this is cool. The cities are talking about the same things, but using a completely different symbolic language.”
He wrote the start of the book in a museum and finished it on a bus during an excursion to and from Florence to a hillside village. “I remember finishing the first draft on that busy bus,” he says. “The first draft is pretty close to the final manuscript. Of course, there’s tiny things I tinker with up to the last minute. I always change something when the sketches come in and the final art arrives. I went back and forth on words with my editor. And I talked with Carson. But these are tiny differences and small tweaks. The shape of it was basically in place.”
I ask Barnett if he believes Ellis is an artist whose work is narrative, with images that—without relying on extraneous visual gestures—suggest a story before and after the actual image. How does that boy have the strength to hold an enormous pebble aloft? Who is the person wearing red stiletto-heeled boots who is hidden from full view by carrying a wooden door? He answers in the affirmative and says it is critical to expanding the metaphors in the text that reveal the limits of language.
“I’m really skeptical of language and especially of metaphor,” he says. “The parade of metaphors toward the end of the book, the parade stops. You get an answer to the question, but the answer doesn’t come from a definition. The answer comes from an action that’s mainly based in the art[work]. We kind of take the foot off the gas in the text, and it only nudges the story along as minimally as you need to. Carson’s art takes over and really gets you to the answer for this question.”
Every character approached by the boy speaks from personal experience, mostly based on their profession. Which displays the fact that each individual has a different conception. Barnett says that while writing the book he didn’t force himself to do more than write with excitement and “approach the topic of love as a writer.”
Two months after the book’s release, he’s now had time to consider the subject and view the book from the perspective of a reader. “I got to thinking about how did this thing work? To me it’s lethal to the project while I’m working on it, but it is important to me in thinking later about the book and whether I want it in the world and how. I don’t think writing the book changed my definition of love,” he says. “It didn’t change my understanding of how love works. That was baked into the making of the book. But, since the time I wrote it, I got married and had a child with Taylor, a now-9-month-old son. Marriage and fatherhood has definitely changed my conception of love. The book didn’t change my definition of love, but events set in motion at the same time I wrote it sure have!”
I ask Barnett if a book that addresses the gaps inherent in language, especially when attempting to express complex concepts like love, makes What is Love suitable for adult readers, not just children. He says, “I write children’s books for children, that is my job and purpose. But most picture books are read out loud by adults to kids. Adults are experiencing this artwork too … but my priorities are always going to be with the kids. If I write a book that doesn’t have much in it for adults, that’s fine. That can be a 100% successful picture book. It’s also fun to take the opportunity to provide an effective experience for the adult, too. That’s something that art does. If you and I look at a painting we can have a conversation about that painting. An adult and a child can read a book together and talk about what it means to them. That’s really exciting; the social value of children’s books. Picture books that are just for adults are only interesting to me in the abstract.”
Inevitably, the conversation winds down to his next project—John’s Turn, a picture book with illustrations by Kate Berube that comes out in March—and his plans for Valentine’s Day, which will be spent with his wife and their son “close to home.”
Hoping to catch him off guard, but not expecting to get away with it, I ask him to answer the question posed in his book. “You’re right, I’m gonna resist answering, ‘what is love?’” he says. “This book is truly my attempt to grapple with this very complex, difficult question. I approached it with a children’s picture book because that allows you to approach something that words alone cannot describe. I’d be undoing all the good work of my book if I stumbled and bumbled by giving an answer right here.”