A Tender Illustrated Celebration of the Many Languages of Love
By Maria Popova
That one mind can reach out from its lonely cave of bone and touch another, express its joys and sorrows to another — this is the great miracle of being alive together. The object of human communication is not the exchange of information but the exchange of understanding. If we are lucky enough, if we are attentive enough, communication then becomes a system for the transfer of tenderness. That we have invented so many forms of it — the language of words, the language of music, the language of flowers — is a testament to our elemental need for this exchange.
A bright and immeasurably tender celebration of that need comes from French author Élise Fontenaille and Spanish artist Violeta Lópiz in their lovely collaboration At the Drop of a Cat (public library).
We meet a six-year-old boy just learning to read and write in his grandfather Luis’s house — a house Luis has built with his own hands, surrounded by a garden full of artichokes the size of heads and green beans climbing into the sky — a garden that “feels like a whole other world.”
Through the little boy’s unjudging eyes, in illustrations as textured and layered as a life well lived, a loving portrait of Luis emerges — his green thumb and the way he “speaks bird language,” his gifts for painting and cooking, his many tattoos, his thick Spanish accent and his charming misuse of idioms: He calls his grandson “the apple of his pie” and loves the expression “at the drop of a cat,” of which the little boy is so fond that he continues using it in school despite his teacher’s correction.
As the portrait unfolds, we realize that Luis misuses idioms because he has only ever heard them spoken, in a foreign tongue: When he was a little boy himself, having spent his childhood working in the fields, he fled war-torn Spain and “crossed mountains and hills and the countryside until he got to France.” He never went to school, never learned to write. Instead, he developed his own language of belonging — a living lexicon for feeling at home in the living world.
And that is how Luis communicates with his grandson — in the language of plants, in the language of paintings, in the language of love.
They draw together in the garden, forage in the meadow, and luxuriate in each other’s light as Luis plays his guitar under the cherry tree.
Radiating from the pages is the great tenderness that blooms between the young boy and the old man as they try to understand each other, to inhabit each other’s inner garden.
The day comes when the child reads a poem to his grandfather — he has finally learned to read and write, but he has also learned something else: that there are many languages of connection, each with its own dignity and delight, each an outstretched hand reaching for another.
Couple At the Drop of a Cat with What Is Love? — a kindred reckoning with the consolations of connection, told through the tender relationship between a child and a grandparent — then revisit The Forest — a love letter to our bond with the wilderness, also illustrated by Violeta Lópiz.
Published November 16, 2023