Choosing Love: Four Favs for Valentine’s Day

February 3, 2022 § 9 Comments

I sat sleep-deprived in the dim winter light of early morning, stealing myself to break it to my children that their dad and I had decided we should return the puppy we’d picked up less than 24 hours earlier.

The previous day, we had driven three hours to pick up an almost five-month-old Goldendoodle. Upon entering the breeder’s house, it became apparent that the dog was nothing like what we’d been promised. Was nothing like our last puppy, either. We had expected a rambunctious, mouthy, high-energy, playful puppy.

What we left with was a dog that had never been socialized. Never seen a man or a child, not to mention a car, leash, crate, or bath. The dog was terrified of us. Of everything. After the car ride home, where we held his trembling body on our laps, he wouldn’t let us near him. We couldn’t pet him. We couldn’t handle him. When my husband tried to pick him up to bring him inside, he got his hand bitten.

The dog wouldn’t eat. He wouldn’t drink. We couldn’t get him outside to use the potty and, if we did, we couldn’t get him back inside. He was terrified of our stairs, so my husband slept next to him on the living room sofa, while I stayed up all night reading everything on the Internet about fearful, traumatized dogs.

What I determined over the course of that long night wasn’t just that this was not the puppy we had envisioned for our family, but that we were in over our heads. A dog who passed the four month mark without being socialized was, the Internet assured me, beyond hope of a normal life, even with professional training.

Earlier that morning, I told my husband that I thought we needed to take him back to the breeder. He reluctantly agreed. So there I sat, waiting for my kids to wake up so we could get it over with.

My son was the first to come down the stairs. His eyes immediately scanned the room, finding the dog—we hadn’t agreed on a name—cowering in the corner. My son stood for a few moments, looking at this terrified ball of fluff, and then he curled up next to me. I braced myself to say the words, but he spoke first, with no suspicion that there was anything amiss.

“Oh, Mommy,” he sighed, his eyes twinkling, a smile breaking across his face like it was Christmas morning. “I’m so happy. I just love him so much.”

This dog, who was nothing like the dog he had wanted, who wouldn’t even let him come near him…he loved him?

I began to speak about what I’d read, about the long road ahead of us. Yes, he said, he had thought as much. He’d start reading things, too. He was excited to help. “I know what it’s like to have anxiety, so I can do this. He’s going to be so happy here. I know it.”

And though part of me wanted to cry, to scream, to run from the loss of control I felt over the entirety of this situation, I thought, What if I chose love? What if we all chose love?

What if we didn’t get the puppy we wanted, but we got the one we needed? Or maybe the one who needed us.

We’re nearly four weeks in, and Fozzie has exceeded every expectation, including those of the trainer we hired to come to the house. He actively seeks out pets from us and even tolerates an occasional one from a visitor. He has learned how to play, how to prance with his stuffed monkey, how to chase us around the yard. He eats his meals out of our hands and has learned that all good things come with peanut butter. He has learned that his favorite playmates leave with their backpacks in the morning and return some hours later with star-crossed eyes just for him. He’s not walking on a leash yet, he’s nowhere near ready to go to a groomer, and he’s still incredibly skittish. But we have never laughed so much as a family, we have never celebrated so hard, as we have in the last month. At a time when I expected we’d be at each other’s throats, our family pulled together.

I am so grateful we chose love.

Today, I want to offer you four new picture books about the act of choosing love, even when it seems scary, even when it seems impossible. If you’ve been hanging around here awhile, you’ll know I typically avoid most of what the industry promotes for Valentine’s Day. I usually have to stretch for recommendations, looking outside saccharine-sweet stories to highlight a quirky one about winter friendship (or, as was the case last year, the world’s cutest unicorn).

NOT THIS YEAR. This year, the book world delivered in spades. I can’t even pick my favorite from the four below because each one is uniquely fabulous.

And the best news? They can be enjoyed all year long. Even Love, Violet, the only title below that’s actually set on Valentine’s Day, is about so much more than the holiday that no one is going to mind it staying out past February 14.

Viking in Love
by Doug Cenko
Ages 3-7

Let’s begin with a book that gets funnier with every reading. Doug Cenko’s offbeat and endearing Viking in Love combines three things you wouldn’t expect to find together in a picture book: Vikings, feline messengers, and a fear of water. Stig loves a hearty stew as much as the next Viking, but he’s not so keen on the sea. (“It’s not like he was scared of it or anything…”) As his pals battle sea monsters in their crude wooden ships, Stig hangs back on shore with his two loyal cats. Until something in the sea catches his eye. A girl—“the most fearless Viking he’d ever seen”—calls to him while straddling a whale’s mouth. “Hei! I’m Ingrid.” They’re the sweetest words Stig has ever heard, but before he can think of something to say in reply, the sea sweeps her away.

That night, Stig gets to work using paper to “get his feelings into words.” He pens Ingrid a love note, dotting the second “i” in her name with a heart. But, the next day, when Stig finally spots her, she’s too far away to retrieve the note. Desperate, he ties the note to one of his cats and attempts to fling the feline into the water (after all, The Art of Kitten Tossing is on his nightstand, a Viking specialty). Did I mention Stig’s cats hate water more than Stig?

Eventually, Stig realizes that if he is to communicate his love for Ingrid, he’ll need to conquer his fear of water. But Stig’s inflatable dragon proves no match for the tempestuous seas, and Stig (and the cats) fall overboard, love note in hand. Good thing Ingrid has been trying to find a way to get her own hearted note to Stig. She just might have hands and heart enough to keep one shy Viking and two soggy cats from drowning. But what will the two say to one another when they’re finally face to face?

Love, Violet
by Charlotte Sullivan Wild; illus. Charlene Chua
Ages 4-8

Love notes—and whether we’re brave enough to deliver them—are also at the heart of Love, Violet, a warm, empowering story about an elementary school crush. As far as Violet is concerned, only one person in her class makes her “heart skip.” Mira can race like the wind, and snowflakes sparkle on her dark eyelashes. In short, she’s all kinds of “magnificent.” So how come Violet feels so shy every time Mira asks her to play or draw together? Why does her heart “thunder like a hundred galloping horses” every time she gets close to her?

Like our Viking buddy, Violet decides she’ll go home and make Mira a proper Valentine with crayons and glitter, more spectacular than what she’s obliged to make for the rest of the class. When Violet heads to school the next day, she dons her favorite cowboy hat for luck. And yet, each time Mira comes up to her, Violet bolts, stumbles, or blunders.

Later, during recess, while she’s making snow angels on her own, Violet considers the facts. Mira is always asking her to play. Mira is the only one who doesn’t laugh at her when she falls. Mira is the only one who notices her cowboy hat. Is it possible the affection is mutual? If so, there’s no time to lose! Now if only the wind would cooperate and…not destroy her paper heart before she’s able to deliver it safely?! Luckily, Mira is full of surprises on this day, too.

I Love You Because I Love You
by Múón Thi Vãn; illus. Jessica Love
Ages 4-8

Picture books featuring parents or caregivers reciting their love to little ones are a dime a dozen, and most of them blur together like bland background noise. Enter I Love You Because I Love You, which stopped me in my tracks with its freshness. I suspected a pairing by Múón Thi Vãn (Wishes) and Jessica Love (Julián is a Mermaid) would produce something inventive, but WOW. “This is the most inclusive picture book I have ever seen,” was my husband’s response upon paging through it. I’ll one up that: this is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever seen.

In a call-and-response format begging to be read in tandem with a loved one, the book features a different pairing on every page, from parent and child to twin siblings to friends. And yes, the inclusiveness is impressive. But Jessica Love has done more than simply weave together an array of skin colors, same-sex couples, inter-generational relationships, and differently-abled people. She has also infused her vibrant paintings with a kind of a grittiness, if you will, alongside exaggerated facial features and pronounced shadows. In an age when digital art seems increasingly bent towards obscuring nuance and detail, these pictures—made with brushes, acrylic ink, watercolor, and gouache on brown cotton paper—feel like real life. Well, real life served up with an extra dose of grace, whimsy, and color.

But don’t overlook Múón Thi Vãn’s intentional language. “I love you because you carry me. Because I love you, I am strong.” “I love you because you play with me. Because I love you, the world becomes our playground.” “I love you because you tell the best stories. Because I love you, my best story is you.” Each of the pairs featured is choosing love, not despite what might happen, but because of it. When we open our hearts to love, there’s no end to the way it will transform us.

What is Love?
by Mac Barnett; illus. Carson Ellis
Ages 4-8

The last of today’s books is also the most abstract. I love when children’s books ask us to reexamine life from an entirely new angle, and that’s just what Mac Barnett and Carson Ellis have done (another all-star team). The story reads like a fable, as a first-person narrator thinks back to when he was a boy and asked his grandmother, “What is love?” “My grandmother was old. I thought she would know.” (This reminds me of when my daughter was little and she told me, after her great-grandmother had come to visit, “Great Gock must be really wise to have all those wrinkles.”)

But the grandmother refuses to answer the question. Instead, she embraces the boy and then sends him “out into the world” to look for the answer himself. As the boy goes, as the boy grows, he poses his question to different people and animals, from a fisherman to an actor to a Siamese cat. What becomes increasingly maddening is that everyone has a different answer for him. A farmer tells him love is a seed, while a soldier tells him it’s a horse. The actor says “applause,” the cat says “the night,” and the poet has a list so long the boy doesn’t even have the patience to hear it. How can love look so different to so many?

Carson Ellis’ paintings have a folksy quality, at once nostalgic and energizing, and she plays with color and white space to connote the passage of time and keep us guessing. What is Love? comes full circle when the boy—now a young man—ends where he began, at his grandmother’s house. This time, he takes her into his arms and tells her he has at last figured out the answer.

We can’t choose love until we understand what love is, and this understanding can come from anywhere. It can come from the young or the old. A loved one or a stranger. Even from a four-legged friend.

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Books published, in order, by Viking, a division of Penguin (gifted); Farrar Straus & Giroux; HarperCollins; and Chronicle Books(gifted). All opinions are my own. If you’re in the Alexandria area, please consider shopping at the beautiful Old Town Books, where I assist with the kids’ buying!

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§ 9 Responses to Choosing Love: Four Favs for Valentine’s Day

  • sandys5 says:

    What a great story! Sometimes it’s not about the pet we choose but how they find their ways into our lives. I’m glad your puppy is making memories for your family as those are things that you’ll always have and will cherish with your kids forever. My recent adoption was nothing like he was written up on paper as Charlie was not a lap inside kitty when we got her home. To this day, he’s a great escape artist but we’ve built him a cat house outside but those first months when he ate through our screen door and pushed out window screens to get outside, he was really pushing my buttons. Keep creating those memories with your family, great post!

    • thebookmommy says:

      Thank you so much, Sandy! And thanks for sharing your stories about Charlie–they really do keep us on our toes, these animals! But so, so worth it. 🙂

  • evpape says:

    Melissa, my heart is so full. You brought tears to my eyes as you described your first hours with your achingly traumatized puppy. How well I understand that feeling of responsibility, as you agonize over how to handle this living being who might bring sorrow to your children…because you brought him into their world. But, oh, how I love the choice you made! With two rescue dogs of our own, I feel they chose us as much as we chose them…and God was there in the middle of it!

    Thank you for your always insightful and delightful reviews of the four books about love. As usual, you have inspired me to read them all. I think I need to buy at least two of them, as well.

    I’m trying to share this on all my media, because yours and your son’s courageous choice to love this wounded puppy is such a great message of love for any time, but especially for the dark days of winter! Thank you, Melissa! This is one of my favorites of all your blogs!

    • thebookmommy says:

      THIS COMMENT! Oh my goodness, you just MADE MY DAY. Thank you so, so much. How lucky your rescue dogs are to have you. xox

      • evpape says:

        Thank you, thank you, Melissa! You know I think that your children and your Fozzie are very blessed in you as well. ❤️

  • aidantalkin says:

    I love these 4 books, fresh perspectives, beautiful art and such enticing descriptions… and I even love that you had me crying on my keyboard when you choose to love little forlorn Fozzie! From an author-illustrator passionate about picture books and rescue-dog-mom (our 4 month old pup, long ago found with littermates in December snow, has become the happiest studio dog ever over the last 11 years).

  • Sarah Crane ONeill says:

    I fought back tears reading this post, Melissa! This story could definitely go to a magazine or further out in the world. ☺️ But I think you know that about your memoir writing, it’s. the. best! (Oh, and I skim the book recs at the end too 😂 ♥️.) Thanks for sharing as always.

  • I am late to this party, but oh, my. I’m so moved by your writing and how you and your family opened your hearts! And thank you for these loving (not sappy! I’m with your there!) write ups of these books, including Love, Violet. What a beautiful blog post. Really. Thank you. And all love to you and your family, and especially its newest member! Love, Charlotte

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