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What Is Ministry But Love in Action?

Reviewed by Sarah Helwig

Sarah Helwig is the manager of the Northlake-Barbara Loar Library in DeKalb County, Georgia, and a ruling elder. She currently worships at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, where her wife, Lucy Strong, is a pastor.

What Is Love?

Mac Barnett
(San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2021)


Matt de la Peña
(New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2018)

What is ministry but love in action? Two children’s picture books—What Is Love? by Mac Barnett and Love by Matt de la Peña—describe the various ways love shows up in different people’s lives. Both of these books would serve as an excellent starting point for discussing the meaning of love with children and exploring how we can show love to others.

Before putting love into action, we must first know what love is. Mac Barnett seeks to answer this question in his book What Is Love? The story opens with a young boy asking his grandmother the title question. Instead of answering, she sends him out into the world to find his own answer. He asks everyone he meets, including a fisherman, a cat, a carpenter, two soldiers, and a poet, “What is love?” And while everyone gives him a different answer, none of the answers make sense to the boy. Each time he asks for clarification, he is told, “You do not understand.” Much like Jesus’ parables, this story provides examples, but no concrete answers. While each answer the boy receives makes sense to the person who gives it, it is only when the boy returns home to his grandmother that he finds the answer he was looking for.

The illustrations by Carson Ellis give the book a timeless, classic feel that complements the tone of the text. The text itself is punctuated by hand-drawn lettering to emphasize the various answers to the titular question. The final illustration brings the story full circle by recreating the scene from the beginning of the book where the grandmother is holding the boy in the garden, only this time their roles are reversed, and it is night instead of day, showing that sometimes love cannot be put into words. It can only be felt.
Reading this book with preschoolers and elementary-aged children will provide a great opportunity for discussion about their own answers to the question “What is love?”

Starting by focusing on what makes them feel loved will naturally lead to conversations about how they can show love to others. This book also provides an excellent opportunity to invite kids to illustrate their answers. Just like in the book, each answer will be specific to each child. Recognizing that everyone defines love differently could encourage awareness of and respect for diversity.

Matt de la Peña takes a more philosophical approach in his book simply titled Love. Instead of searching for a definition for love, he and illustrator Loren Long present a series of diverse scenes showing the different ways love appears in our lives. Long’s illustrations are truly stunning. The pictures not only feel like they are brimming with life, they also reflect a diverse and inclusive world. Each scene includes people of different races, ages, abilities, and living situations. The scenes are roughly divided into three sections. First are bright scenes that seem to shine with joy and love, from parents standing over a crib, to a father and daughter dancing on the roof of their trailer at sunset. Then come scenes that appear to be frozen in time, when love feels lost because of an ending, a death, or a tragedy. And finally, we see more subtle signs of “love overlooked,” like a parent who works long hours, and made-up family stories told during a game of horseshoes. The common thread through all of these scenes is that love is about connection with the people and the world around us. Even when love is hard to find, all is not lost, and we are never alone.

Much like Barnett’s book, this book could serve as an excellent conversation starter for older elementary kids about all the different ways we might experience love throughout our lives. Acknowledging that sometimes life is hard, and we might struggle to find love, normalizes this experience for kids and provides an opportunity to talk about how to handle life’s ups and downs by looking for those loving connections. Again, starting by asking kids where they see love in their own lives could serve as a natural segue for discussing how they could be there for and show love to others. This book would also work as a goodbye or graduation gift to remind children or youth that even when they leave, love will go with them, and they will never be alone.

Both books would be excellent choices for reading during children’s worship or a Sunday school class. Reflecting on the different metaphors and definitions of love presented in these two books could even serve as a starting point for helping kids of multiple ages plan a service for children’s sabbath. Maybe love really is a fish, the sound of laughter, applause, and a slice of burned toast. And maybe, when we are finished searching for it, we will see that love, in its many forms, is right in front of us.

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