Picture Book Author Says 'I Had To Be Real' When Writing 'Love' Matt de la Peña's new children's book covers the good and the bad of everyday life. He says, "I had to be honest that there are going to be these things in life that are tough and that are dark."

Picture Book Author Says 'I Had To Be Real' When Writing 'Love'

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

And sometimes children's books tell you everything you need to know.

MATT DE LA PENA: (Reading) In the beginning, there is light and two wide-eyed figures standing near the foot of your bed. And the sound of their voices is love.

MCEVERS: That's Matt de la Pena reading from his new picture book. It's called "Love." It's filled with drawings of the good and the bad of everyday life. The book reminds us that if you're lucky, you know what love is before you can even say the word. It's around you all the time if you just pay attention.

DE LA PENA: (Reading) A cab driver plays love softly on his radio while you bounce in back with the bumps of the city. And everything smells new. And it smells like life. In a crowded concrete park, you toddle toward summer sprinklers while older kids skip rope and run up the slide. And soon you are running among them. And the echo of your laughter is love. On the night the fire alarm blares, you're pulled from sleep and whisked into the street where a quiet old lady is pointing to the sky. Stars shine long after they've flamed out, she tells you, and the shine they shine with is love. But it's not only stars that flame out, you discover. It's summers, too, and friendships and people.

MCEVERS: Author Matt de la Pena joined us with the book's illustrator, Loren Long. And I asked Matt how he got the idea for "Love."

DE LA PENA: Back last year there was so much divisiveness in the country. And I have a 3-and-a-half-year-old. And I would go into my daughter's room and read to her at night. And I was like, how do I as a parent - as a relatively new parent - how do I transition from the news, which I'm very affected by, to sitting with my daughter and explaining the world to her?

And so I thought, gosh, all I want is - I just want to read her a book about love. And I will tell you I wrote a number of drafts. And it was meant to be just a purely uplifting poem that I could read to my daughter. But there was something hollow about it. There was something that didn't ring true. And what I realized is I had failed to acknowledge any sense of adversity.

MCEVERS: Right.

DE LA PENA: So I had to go back in. And I had to be real. I had to be honest that there are going to be these things in life that are tough and that are dark. And that changed the poem dramatically.

MCEVERS: Wow. And then, I mean, to hear it is one thing - and it is very lovely - but to see these illustrations it is really just a whole other layer. And I want to try to describe them a little bit. I mean, there's - I feel like everyone is in this book, right? There are kids in headscarves. There's a kid in a wheelchair. There are brown kids, black parents, white uncles. You know, everyone is in this book. There's a little boy - looks like he's, like, hiding under a piano with his dog.

DE LA PENA: Yes.

MCEVERS: And you can see the parents - you know, the mother's upset. The dad's walking away. There's a drink on the piano. Like, there's a fallen lamp. Something bad has happened.

DE LA PENA: Yes.

MCEVERS: Right?

LOREN LONG: Right.

MCEVERS: And, well, explain that, Loren. Like, what were you trying to do with some of the illustrations?

LONG: When I get this manuscript it's just these words - but it's not only stars that flame out, you discover. It's summers, too, and friendships and people. And I'm reading this, and I'm thinking, I can go in so many different directions. One of my ideas was maybe I'll do like a Norman Rockwell type scene of a van - of children at the end of summer and they're moving away. There's a moving van. Another one would have been, like, maybe the death of a pet or perhaps the death of a loved one, maybe a grandmother.

But then I also thought, you know, I have divorce in my family. I have addiction in my family. And what I'm illustrating here is a domestic dispute. And if you're reading this book with a child from a wonderfully stable home, great. But that's a way of sharing empathy with that experience. And if you are that child under the piano, you exist in this book.

And what I'd love to point out really quick about this image - there's still a lot of love in this spread. That mother loves that child. That father even loves that child. And that - and he's of course comforted by his dog.

MCEVERS: I want to talk about the last image or one of the last images of the book - not the very last one - but the passage, and the face staring back in the bathroom mirror, this, too, is love. Of course, the image is just this close-up image of a girl looking right you. She has these beautiful brown eyes. Matt, what did you first think when you saw Loren's illustration?

DE LA PENA: Well, it blew me away. And we - this is when we talked about a lot when he was doing the sketches and stuff. And I was so excited for this. And we both agreed that this was one of the biggest moments in terms of the idea of the poem as a whole because, you know, I got to tell you, I go into a lot of schools as an author. And sometimes I'll go into a very wealthy school and they've had an author before, and they know how to do it. They're excited to bring me in.

But I also go into some underprivileged schools. And occasionally when I'll walk into their school a little boy or a girl will look up at me and say, hey, mister, why would you come here? In other words, they're saying, why are you wasting your time on us? And it breaks my heart. So I think this moment in the poem I wanted to just really, like, land on this truth that in order to go out into the world you have to first be able to turn to the mirror and find love in yourself no matter what race you are, no matter what socioeconomic level you're existing in.

So for me, this was a very important moment. But in another way - Loren and I talked about this, and he could talk about the art more specifically, but this child is also looking directly at the reader and daring you to look at - away. And it - he or she is basically saying, I dare you to ignore my existence.

LONG: Yeah. And for me, as the artist of this book, the reason I felt the big face would be impactful is that it's the only moment like that in this entire spread. You're seeing a lot of scenes and a lot of involved compositions. And when you turn this page, I wanted you to stop. So I like to think in terms of cinema. And if I was making a movie, what moments do I want the audience to slow down and think?

MCEVERS: Illustrator Loren Long and author Matt de la Pena, thanks so much to both of you.

DE LA PENA: What an honor. Thank you so much.

LONG: Absolutely. Thank you so much for having us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL GIACCHINO'S "UP WITH END CREDITS")

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