I remember my first kiss, at age five. I rushed up to Sally Gooding in the playground and planted a quick kiss. I'm sure I must have been terribly nervous. I don't remember actually thinking the move through, or, for that matter, her being totally elated about it (although I do remember thinking fondly of her over the following years).
I also recall there being several other girls that I fancied, so clearly "love" is something I experienced from an early age even if I didn't fully grasp all that it entailed. I couldn't have told you that I was in love, I just knew I liked Sally enough to want to kiss her, that I wanted to be an adult, a grown-up. I wanted to be the men that flickered on our black and white TV, to be Rock Hudson flirting with Doris Day or Cary Grant sparring with Jimmy Stewart for the affections of Katherine Hepburn. It all seemed so easy on TV. And back then, in the 70s, the live male role-models in my life didn't talk about feelings or emotions. They drank strong ale, smoked in the bus, raced pigeons and knew how to pluck and gut a chicken.
Perhaps, in some ways, that's why I became an illustrator, communicating primarily in pictures-because finding the right words for things is really hard, unless you are naturally erudite, which is a small, smart sounding word. I like small, smart sounding words, they are concise and can save you no end of faffing with a truck load of words that skirt around your point. And that's what I love about picture books: they are small, concise, and they give you a lot in quite a short space.
My newest picture book, There's This Thing, came about because of a conversation I had with my daughter about love. One day, six at the time, she came home from school declaring her love for a boy in her class. Mind you, it wasn't just one boy, there was quite a lengthy list and said list had a pecking order. Nothing like having understudies right? So we talked about love, and all the forms it comes in: friend love, family love, boyfriend/girlfriend love. It was clear she had not really considered this theme or emotion previously or at least expressed it in this manner. But the joy at the prospect of "fancying" someone was quite apparent, as if she had attained a new gaming level, a power-up, a hidden map to a whole new secret level. Perhaps all our life journeys can be expressed in this manner, al la Scott Pilgrim. Clearly everything we do in our lives makes us a bigger person, the more we experience the greater we become, etc. And for my daughter, it did appear to be a quasi-comic book emotive moment.
This conversation about love made me think: about books for children about children "in love", and how we tell those stories, and even, should we tell those stories. Well, of course we should -- stories about love are just as valid as any other theme you'll find in a children's book.
For instance, there are plenty of books that shine a light on the scary, unknown monster under the bed, such as Lemony Snicket and Jon Klasson's The Dark or Emma Yarlett's Orion and The Dark. The frightening first day at school theme is delightfully turned on its head by David Mackintosh in Marshall Armstrong is New to Our School. The wondrous adventure with a cardboard box theme is beautifully rendered by Benji Davies in Linda Sarah's On Sudden Hill. The... well, you get it right? Surely I'm preaching to the converted here. Our stories should reflect us and our world, our fears, our hopes, our experiences, and our aspirations. All our stories are important and stories about love sit right up there with the rest.
So I wrote a book about a little girl with a crush on a little boy, a girl who doesn't have the courage to express her feelings and so devises all manner of schemes to get the boy's attention.
We all know, as adults, that love is a many-splendored thing (well, mostly). All the years that have passed since I was five haven't diminished the feeling, the urge, the need to love and be loved. It is without doubt one of the strongest emotions we have as human beings, and probably goes some way to explaining why we all experience those feelings -- many of us, from an early age. I am not suggesting children understand these feelings in any great depth, but rather that children experience many feelings they don't understand -- love is merely one of them. And that there should be books that not only reflect those experiences but help them through it.
Connah Brecon is the author of There's This Thing.