As for love, do you need a definition of the word to experience it?

“What is love?” a boy asks his grandmother in Barnett and Ellis’s book. She picks him up and says, “If you go out into the world, you might find an answer.” So he goes. “Love is a fish,” says the fisherman. “Love is a house,” says the carpenter. As the boy rejects each answer, the fable-like text builds to a crescendo of solutions, both serious and amusing: A mass of people of all types proudly parade their love metaphors across the page. Finally the boy, now grown, returns to his old home. In a moving passage, he absorbs the scene through all his senses, digging his toes into the dirt. His grandmother appears and asks if he has found his answer. He picks her up and replies, “Yes.”

My adult self sees a meaning here: Trying to understand love through other people’s words is no substitute for experience — for feeling, and being there for someone. My inner child, with whom the need to understand “what is love” struck no resonant chord, recoils at the picking up of a grandmother, is a bit mystified about that “yes” and goes back to look at the pictures.

Ellis’s immaculate design sense infuses this book with a dignity and grace that adds power to the words. In her gouache drawings every watery bloom and ragged edge helps to strengthen the composition, build the space. The art is tactile and lively, playful and solemn. It recalls good midcentury illustration — artists like Alice and Martin Provensen and Heinz Edelmann — with hints of outsider art. A bit of blankness in the depiction of people, which in another kind of story could detract, here adds to the timeless quality of the words. The shapes and patterns of Ellis’s art, combined with the tenor of Barnett’s narration, give this book an air of mystery, whatever love is or isn’t.

If ideas in a text go over a child’s head, it’s not a problem. Early in life, that over-the-head airspace is a barrage of words sailing by; you’re used to it. You guess, you assume, you go on. The failed book is one that doesn’t engage on some other level. A sense of story with a tangible theme, a good rhythm and a set of brilliant illustrations are what a child needs. At the start of life, the small questions want answering most of all.

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