Two best-selling creators of children’s books visited Athens on Tuesday to spread the simple message of their latest collaboration — love.
“Love,” by author Matt de la Pena and illustrator Loren Long, is a picture book published this month by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, and love is what the two talked about with children at Barrow Elementary School on Tuesday. They were scheduled to visit another Clarke County elementary school, J.J. Harris, and the Athens-Clarke County Library later in the day.
De la Pena, who lives in Brooklyn, began their visit by reading the book to the children packed into the Barrow cafeteria; except he didn’t read it, he recited it. He knew it by heart because he revised it so many times — 104 — he told the children, who’d guessed much lower numbers.
De la Pena told the children he never thought he’d become a writer as he grew up in California, though he wrote poetry all through middle school and high school.
All that poetry practice was evident as he recited the book, which is really a poem on its own, now illustrated with Long’s paintings.
“And it’s love in each deep wrinkle of your grandfather’s face as he lowers himself onto an overturned bucket to fish,” he told the children, most of whom had read the book before his visit.
“And it’s love in the rustling leaves of gnarled trees lined behind the flower fields, and it’s love in the made-up stories your uncles tell in the backyard between wild horseshoe throws … and the man in rags outside the subway station plays love notes that lift into the sky like tiny beacons of light.”
Long, who lives in Cincinnati, explained how he’d created pictures to go along with de la Pena’s words, and how like the writer he sometimes had to try over and over until he got it just right.
Both are well-known authors. Long is both writer and artist of a series of picture books about Otis, a kindly and fun-loving tractor. He was also picked to be the illustrator of the newly released classic, “The Little Engine That Could.”
De la Pena won the prestigious Newberry Medal in 2016 for his “Last Stop on Market Street.”
As de la Pena talked, Long drew, re-creating on white paper the cover illustration he did for “Love.”
He also told the children and their teacher how he’d become an artist, thanks to the encouragement of his mother, a high school art teacher, and Mr. Pennington, a big man who was both football coach and Long’s middle school art teacher.
“When I was young it was hard for me to read. It felt like work to me,” long admitted to the students.
But his mother loved to read to him, and that instilled a love of stories in him, he said.
In a question and answer period before Barrow students lined up to go back to class, one child asked the two what their favorite books were that they’d written.
The Otis books, replied Long; the little tractor became like a friend, he said.
But “the most important book I’ve ever been a part of is ‘Love,’” he said.
“Right now, this is the book that he and I most want to put into the world,” said de la Pena, whose books for young adults delve into themes such as race and class. De la Pena’s father was the first of his family to be born in the United States, he said.
“I just hope this is like a little piece of love in your life,” said de la Pena.
Actually, the book had already brought love into the children’s lives, or at least got them to thinking about it. The Barrow hallways were decorated with children’s artwork inspired by the book. Posters for the book hung on hallway walls, and on them children had written on sticky notes describing what they thought love was, including the following:
“The weird feeling in your stomick (sic).”
“Fishing and hunting with my dad.”
“Family, friends and puppies.”
“Family, friends and climbing.”
“Making someone laugh.”