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The love you show your children this Valentine's Day doesn't have to be all hearts and flowers and chocolate.
In Matt de la Peña's tender new picture book, “Love,” it’s also burned toast, made by someone well intentioned and rushed. Or the comforting arms of a loved one, when things really aren’t OK.
It is, in other words, real. And heartbreaking. And beautiful.
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“Love” by Matt de la Peña and Loren Long, $12 (originally $18), Amazon
De la Peña and illustrator Loren Long show love that comes from places of difficulty and darkness, using beautifully diverse images of all kinds of families, dancing in trailer parks and running through sprinklers in playgrounds, or watching parents fight or hustle off to work.
“Love” has made waves for its difficult imagery, including a child huddling under a piano while parents fight. But de la Peña believes we shouldn’t shield children from darkness.
He wrote "Love" during the election cycle when he was caught up in the divisiveness of the country and wanted to figure out how to explain things to his daughter, “a little girl who has questions, lots of questions.”
“I’m just so moved by the truth and reality that I felt like the poem was empty until I acknowledged that adversity exists in this world, and as a matter of fact, if we acknowledge the adversity or even elements of darkness, I feel like love can be even more powerful,” de la Peña told TODAY.
De la Peña shared some of his own favorite books about love with TODAY: “The books that are my favorite are the ones that get me, emotionally.”
“Pecan Pie, Baby,” by Jacqueline Woodson and Sophie Blackall, $8-14, Amazon
With a 3-year-old daughter and a baby on the way, de la Peña has this picture book on heavy rotation.
“It’s great because the mother is expecting in the book … and the whole book is about how much the mother still loves the first child more than anything in the world, even though everyone’s talking about the new baby that’s coming.”
“A Chair for My Mother,” by Vera B. Williams, $7-15, Amazon
A mother and daughter lost everything in a fire, so they save all their change to buy a new chair for the mother, “who’s very tired from working so hard and just wants a place to put her feet up,” de la Peña says.
“That love between a daughter and her single mother is pretty amazing.”
“American Born Chinese,” by Gene Luen Yang, $10-17, Amazon
This graphic novel resonates because de la Peña spends a lot of time in schools in minority communities, where children wonder why an author would even visit.
“So an American Born Chinese is about a Chinese boy who’s learning to love himself in America, in spite of all the stereotypes. ... I think sometimes we overlook the power of being able to love yourself no matter who you are.”
“Where Are You Going, Baby Lincoln?” by Kate DiCamillo, $5-12, Amazon
In this chapter book, two sisters come to terms with how much they love and need each other.
“It’s interesting because it’s a chapter book for children, but it’s about these two 60-year-old women and their special sister bond,” de la Peña says. “Honestly, it’s so genius. I think she’s the best children’s writer of our era.”
Need a Little More Love? Try These New Heart-Warmers
Here are some other new books about love for your little (and not-so-little) Valentines.
“Dear Girl,” by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, Paris Rosenthal and Holly Hatam, $18, Amazon
Amy Krouse Rosenthal wrote “Dear Girl” with her daughter Paris before she died of ovarian cancer last year. Rosenthal has a minor specialty in love and published the heartbreaking essay, “You May Want to Marry My Husband” shortly before her death. Got a boy? Her sweet ode “I Wish You More” wishes readers more hugs than ughs and more snowflakes than tongue.
“This is Not a Valentine,” by Carter Higgins and Lucy Ruth Cummins, $11 (originally $15), Amazon
This book swears it’s not a Valentine because it trades hearts and flowers for drippy glue, paper planes and the jelly half of a peanut butter sandwich (which makes it that much more special).
“Love, Mama,” by Jeanette Bradley, $12 (originally $17), Amazon
Saying goodbye to Mama is tough, but a letter makes all the difference in this comforting tale of love that can cross any distance.
“Love Is,” by Diane Adams and Claire Keane, $11 (originally $16), Amazon
A little girl takes in a duckling and learns what love is — from noisy midnight feedings to sensing when the time is right to fly the nest. It might resonate as much with parents as their kids.
“Words and Your Heart,” by Kate Jane Neal, $13 (originally $17), Amazon
This is an ode to the power of words and how to use them them to take care of each other’s hearts.
“You’re All Kinds of Wonderful,” by Nancy Tillman, $12 (originally $18), Amazon
Tillman’s latest book celebrates all the “bells and whistles” that set children apart. (Her classic “Wherever You Are, My Love Will Find You” is a weeper.)
“XO, Ox: A Love Story,” by Adam Rex and Scott Campbell, $14 (originally $18), Amazon
Ox is in love with a gazelle, but her form letter reply shows this romance is very one-sided in a funny, epistolary picture book.
“A Taxonomy of Love,” by Rachael Allen, $12 (originally $18), Amazon
Can true love be charted? Spencer sure hopes so. At 13 and with Tourette’s syndrome, he has a lot to figure out.
“Rookie on Love,” edited by Tavi Gevinson, $10 (originally $15), Amazon
This anthology from the creator of the online magazine Rookie includes poems and essays from decidedly non-teenage authorities, including Hilton Als, Emma Straub and Janet Mock.
“The Whole Thing Together,” by Ann Brashares, $12 (originally $19), Amazon
From the “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” author comes a story of family and love during a Long Island summer.
“Love & Other Train Wrecks,” by Leah Konen, $12 (originally $18), Amazon
A whirlwind teenage romance (is there any other kind?) starts with a train wreck of a first impression in this young adult novel.
Words in Deep Blue, by Cath Crowley, $8-11, Amazon
A grieving Rachel has developed feelings for childhood friend Henry, and becomes a pen pal at his family bookstore where patrons tuck letters between pages.
We also have a round-up of the best Valentine's Day cards to out in your child's classroom.