In this month of valentines and chocolates, we see so many references to love. It’s the sublime story theme.

Not always love of the valentine sort In stories for children. But the love of a parent, for a friend, a pet, an activity, yes. Often quieter than even that. Sometimes it’s love expressed in looking and listening, accepting, or making room for.

The consequences can still be profound. A mere expression of empathy at the right moment can transform all the characters in a story. But how do we capture this in an image?

As illustrators, we’re called upon to show change in story pictures. We portray it as action, as a character confronts the ‘dark moment’, the difficult something. Jumps off the diving board, or starts (finally) to show mastery of the sport or task.

It’s harder when the change involves internal struggles. Emotions tumble from illustrator Patrice Barton’s primary-school-age characters in Trudy Ludwig’s The Invisible boy.

Quicksilver, nuanced figures and faces express the gamut of changes, inner and outer – jubilation to despair, sweetness to cruelty, comedy to pathos in the span of a page turn, sometimes. Barton’s pictures are a master class in picture book theater.

Gestures writ large. Living loud is how many kids live their lives. And then there are children like Brian. Ignored by peers. Bespectacled. Quiet and diffident. Invisible. We’ve known kids like him. Brian dreads recess and lunch, because he spends them unnoticed and alone. But a new kid, Justin shows up in class. He gets teased for the lunch he’s brought – the bulgogi made by his mom. Brian wants to spare him the feelings of isolation and opprobrium he feels at school every day. So he writes Justin a little note, with a fun little cartoon picture he draws.

Justin returns the favor the next day by including Brian at the rowdy boys’ table, where the gang is hard at work on a creative project. At lunchtime, Justin invites Brian to a table of buddies. A smile, a comradely shoulder grasp. And poof! Social proof! They’re all Brian needs to feel part of the tribe.

We’re struck by the gentleness of elderly zookeeper Amos McGee in the low-key, limited-color line art of Erin Stead, in A Sick Day for Amos McGee, written by Stead’s husband Philip Stead. 

The zookeeper’s patient affection for the animals he cares for is clear in Stead’s drawings. He’s shown giving them all the time and attention in the world. In their silent way, they know it and respond in the way animals do. Well not exactly the way animals do, But if they could reciprocate when the moment arose, they’d probably do it like this: Hop on a bus together to meet the zookeeper deed for deed, kindness for kindness, hour for hour.

The pictures capture the truth of how animals seem to know when they’re being loved, tended to and sat with.  No stock formulas in how Stead draws her droll menagerie. The silent beasts are rendered with such care and so lovingly that by the story’s end they’ve become as much our friends as Amos’s. 

Amos’s good turns make us uniquely see and appreciate him in the story’s first half. In the second half, the animals’ acts of caring make us love them. This book with its exquisitely unhurried illustrations and pacing won Stead the Caldecott Medal in 2011.

 “In troubled times, when many of us are losing contact with the natural world, I wanted to show that there is still hope in a coming generation of children who have curiosity and empathy with the world around them,” says Bob Graham, acclaimed Australian author-illustrator about his picture book How to Heal a Broken Wing.

Young Will is first to spot the injured pigeon lying on the bustling city sidewalk. No one else, and so he takes on the rescue/rehab effort, with the heartfelt support of his parents who are with him. We follow Will, parents, and the hurt (though trusting) bird through the stages of a long recovery.  

“A loose feather can’t be put back, but a broken wing can sometimes heal” the text tells us. The story unfolds gracefully, quietly, In line and wash-style cartoon panel illustrations. As one review said, “Wistful and uplifting in true Bob Graham fashion, here is a tale of possibility — and of the souls who never doubt its power.”

Said to have started by an aimless doodle, The Day it Rained Hearts by Felicia Bond celebrates the hand-making of valentines (it’s almost a how-to) and creativity’s boundlessness. Charming, vignette-style illustrations done in colored crayons with a black ink line.

.Love is shown in the way Cornelia Augusta tailors each of her cards to a specific friend. And we see how each recipient responds when the mail is opened.

In Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch, by Eileen Spinelli, with illustrations by Paul Yalowitz, we see the effect our own acts of goodness can have on others as well as ourselves.

The anger and panic of a child’s struggle with the affliction of stuttering are transmitted in powerful poetry and pictures of I Talk Like a River by acclaimed Canadian poet Jordan Scott of Vancouver Island and illustrated by Kate Greenaway Medal-winning illustrator, Sydney Smith of Halifax, Nova Scotia.  Smith also illustrated Sidewalk Flowers, by Jon Arno Lawson and Town is By the Sea by Joan Schwartz. 

Here Smith had to convey not only the terrible emotional storm of frustration in stuttering’s worst moments, but the epiphany of finding one’s voice.

On a particularly hard day, the boy’s dad comes and takes him out of class. They go for a walk by the river. Dad, the way dads can sometimes do, reframes the experience for his son to help him cope.

Author Jordan Scott, who stutters, writes, “My dad took me to the river so I would feel less alone. When he pointed to the river, he gave image and language to talk about something so private and terrifying.”

“He connected my stuttering to the movements of the natural world and I delighted in watching my mouth move outside of itself.”

Illustrator Smith communicates in watercolors the overwhelm a young boy feels from his lifelong affliction. He does it in startling, kaleidoscopic closeups and a spectacular center fold-out that immerses us, like his child character, into the splashing, moving river and the sparkling radiance of sunlight on the water.

He says in the video, “I’m trying to speak to the experience of being a child as human, not as a separate organism. 

“I want to speak to the child who has the same feelings as me, the same fears, the same insecurities. As an adult, you have the ability to compartmentalize, to shift. ‘I’m going to feel this later.’ ‘Awe, that hurts. I’m going to think about this later. But for now, I’ve got business to do.’

“But for kids, they feel it when it comes. They process it. It’s not always pretty. Sometimes ugly and often doesn’t have a name. And that’s something that’s really beautiful. These emotions, you don’t have labels for them when we’re kids. They just hit us and we have to roll with it. And it’s all the time. And I see it with my own kids. But if I can address that, if I can speak to that within children’s books and not speak down to children, but speak to them on the same level, that is my goal.”

I Talk Like a River was named a Best Book of the Year by Wall Street Journal, People Magazine, NPR, Kirkus Reviews, Shelf Awareness, Bookpage, School Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, The Children’s Book Council and the Chicago Public Library.