Whether your sweetheart is a tiny toddler in your lap, the kid across the aisle in homeroom, your child, your dog, your date, your mate . . . these books about love are the perfect excuse to cozy up and share some time together.
Splat is such a great character. I love his foamy toothpaste mouth as he dreams of his crush, Kitten. I love that he steps on a piece of toilet paper on his way to the kitchen, and he has his own personal raincloud when he thinks he’s not good enough. Kitten has “snowy white paws and pea green eyes, and Splat likes her more than fish sticks and ice cream.” Rob Scotton has a knack for capturing personality, and sweetness. He makes no mention of the red umbrella Kitten holds over Splat’s head as she hands him her valentine, shielding him from his own storm, but it says a lot about who she is and how to love someone well. They end up giving each other “I like you” cards and it’s just an “awwwwwwww” kind of story that takes me back to the days of grade school crushes.
The Uncorker of Bottles has an important job, to deliver the messages he finds in bottles floating on the sea. Sometimes they’re sad but usually they “made people quite happy, for a letter can hold the treasure of a clam-hugged pearl.” The Uncorker sees himself as unlovely, receiving a message addressed to him “was about as likely as finding a mermaid’s toenail on the beach.”
Soft colors and lovely pencil drawings illustrate this story about a man who takes his job seriously and sets out to find the owner of a party invitation that isn’t addressed to anyone. He asks, “a seagull, a sailor, and a one-man band,” but nobody claims the letter. I love the quirky characters and language, and the arc that takes us from low to high, like the tide. I love the mystery of who sent the invitation that draws everyone to the beach. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is everyone comes, and the man who thought himself unlovely dances at the water’s edge with his new friends, his heart a “glass vessel, filled to the brim.”
I was hooked from the first line of this story, “Stig was like most Vikings. He loved fresh air, hearty stew, and, or course, adorable kittens.” Yes! Unfortunately Stig doesn’t like the sea. When he falls in love with a fearless viking named Ingrid who is swept out to sea he writes her a love note. What follows are two of the funniest picture book moments I’ve seen in a while. He tries sending the note out to Ingrid folded as a boat, and then folded as a bird, but when that fails . . .
These are followed by another funny scene, he grabs a kid’s inflatable horsie floaty and sets out on the sea, determined to conquer his fear and get his love note to Ingrid. But the waves toss him around, popping his floatie. We get a wordless double page spread where Stig sinks down into the sea alongside his two kittens but then . . . page turn, we see two hands plunging down to grab them, and then another page turn, Ingrid in her Viking boat holds Stig in one hand and the kittens in the other. Turns out she has a love note for Stig, tied to her own kitten, and they fall in love and sail off into the sunset, passing between two octopi who make a heart with their tentacles. It is about love and conquering your fears and it is silly and goofy and sweet and I love it.
We gave this book to my son Christmas 2014 with the inscription, “To Nate, who is a great hugger.” He was fifteen years old at the time, and he really was and still is a great hugger. In this book the “hug machine” is a kid with buggy eyes and outstretched arms who calms people down and cheers them up with his hugs. But he doesn’t just hug people, as you can see from the cover. No fire hydrant, mailbox or tree is ignored. Nothing is too pokey (a porcupine) or too big (a whale) for a hug.
It is a great picture of unconditional love and the capacity of anyone, even a child, to make a difference in the world with this simple act of kindness. In the end, the hug machine is exhausted from all that hard work. When he can’t give one more hug, he receives one, and we’re reminded that givers need to be receivers, too. All that in just over 200 words, this book is simple enough to be enjoyed by toddlers with a message adults need to hear, too. It is the beauty and brilliance of a well-written picture book, nailing universal truths with humor and simplicity.
More, More, More Said the Baby by Vera B. Williams
I love thinking about all the different kinds of love when Valentine’s Day comes around. In this book the love of a daddy, mama or grandma for their sweet child is shown as they scoop those babies up, sing to them and give them affection. The paintings are bright and ethnicities are diverse. A 2015 New York Times tribute to Williams after her death says, “Her illustrations, known for bold colors and a style reminiscent of folk art, were praised by reviewers for their great tenderness and crackling vitality.” In this book each story plays out almost as if on stage. A chair or couch are the only props so our focus is on the activity, whether a kiss on the bellybutton, a swing all around, or a rock in the arms.
Each story has a similar refrain, a chant, focusing on an adorable part of the baby’s body. “Just look at you with your perfect bellybutton, right in the middle, right in the middle, right in the middle of your fat little belly, “ or, “Just look at you with your ten little toes, right on the ends, right on the ends, right on the ends of your two little feet,” and finally Little Bird’s mama croons, “Just look at you with your two closed eyes, right on either side, right on either side, right on either side of your neat little nose.” The babies can’t get enough, they beg for more, more, more, or in sleepy Little Bird’s case, “Mmm. Mmmm. Mmmm.” So, so sweet, the entire text acts as a refrain, a tribute to being treasured and loved and cared for.
I can’t resist including Hot Dog, especially since it just won the Caldecott Medal for most distinguished American picture book for children in 2023. We moved downtown a few years ago during the pandemic, and because of our doodle Humphrey (he’s a Double Doodle actually, as if the word doodle isn’t quite cute enough) we entered the world of dog parks. We began to meet lots of dog owners, many who got “pandemic pups.” Most of these new friends were single without kids and their dogs were their children. We just recently went to Humphrey’s friend Penny’s third birthday party. I have never encountered such love for pooches as I have the past couple years, and if a dog can have a birthday party, they most certainly can be a valentine.
This review is my love letter to this wonderfully simple book. I love the illustrations, the super brief rhyming text, and the world of city and sea. Hot dog is a weiner dog with a kindly bespectacled owner who gets it when the city is so hot he can’t sit, and the crowds are “too close! too loud! too much! THAT’S IT!” That dog won’t move one bit . . . until something changes. His owner calls a cab, hops on a train, then a ferry, and takes them both to a “welcome whiff of someplace new where she kicks off her shoes and that doggie runs and runs.” A bunch of wordless spreads follow, inviting you to take your own sweet time to notice the shells, the seal, and the setting sun. I love that they go back to the city, all cooled off, and now it’s a good place. It’s familiar. It’s home. Sometimes we all just need a break. I loved taking one with this book.