It could be that love is the theme of almost every book—how we love, how we lose, how we reassemble ourselves when love ends, or as love makes us new. This month’s selections look at love from two different sides. The Year of Magical Thinking (National Book Award 2005) is the story of author Joan Didion’s experience in the wake of sudden death of her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, from a heart attack, ending a marriage and literary partnership of nearly 40 years. Our children’s selection is Newbery Award winner Matt de la Peña’s 2018 children’s picture book Love. Beautifully illustrated by Loren Long, it a poem about love of all kinds imagined from the perspective of a child.
Magical Thinking chronicles Didion’s grief, as she turns her acute journalist’s eye inward. She begins with, and returns throughout the book, to the first lines she wrote when she sat down at her computer, “one, she says, or two, or three” days after her husband’s death: Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
Didion writes to herself as well as her audience as she reads about grief with a simultaneously clinical and personally searching eye. Encountering a description of the “pathological mourner,” she asks, “Were we unusually dependent on one another…or unusually lucky?” From Emily Post’s 1922 advice that the grieving person be protected from “over-emotional” persons to contemporary research on mental illness and depression, Didion is her own patient and muse. The book also is a memoir of a marriage of a power couple who shared careers and triumphs as well as tragedy. When Dunne died, they had just returned from the hospital ICU, where their daughter, Quintana Roo, was fighting sepsis and pneumonia. As Didion grieves her husband, her solitude multiplies, as she also journeys through her daughter’s illness, seeming recovery, then subsequent injury from a fall. A year and a half later, Quintana died at 39; another book, Blue Nights, is dedicated to Quintana.
The Year of Magical Thinking is like a letter written from the bottom of the ocean; it’s blurry and impressionistic but also at times shockingly lucid. It is magical.
De la Peña’s Love is beautiful in every way. The artwork is beautiful; the book’s diverse range of people is beautiful; its realism is beautiful. In an interview with NPR, de la Peña talked about how, in the midst of negative news, he just wanted to curl up with his 3-year-old daughter and read a book about love, something that could appeal to everyone. But he said it took him a while to find that universal message: Love isn’t only simple and beautiful. Love is found in unexpected places. Love may be the burnt toast your older sibling makes when your parents have to leave for work before you’re awake. Love is in the sky, the stars. Love is strong enough to withstand adversity, and sometimes, “love seems lost.”
One striking illustration shows a child hiding as her parents argue: For children who haven’t experienced this sort of thing, a loved one’s lap is a good place to imagine what that might feel like; for children who have, what a gift to find themselves reflected in the pages of a beautiful book. Love is a book with a mission; it moves readers to feel the love in their own lives and to send love out into the world.