As far as Violet was concerned,
only one person in her class raced like the wind.
Only one had a leaping laugh.
Only one made Violet’s heart skip.
Over the past several years, more and more picture books featuring queer and trans characters have hit the market, but it is unlikely that you would be able to find one quite like Love, Violet on your shelves or in your library. Most people wouldn’t be able to. It’s a sweet and gentle picture book with a strong message, and one that publishers seem to have shied away from in the past. On its own, Love Violet would be a great picture book, but its importance and the niche it fills make it an excellent pick for any home, classroom, or library collection.
Love, Violet tells the story of a young girl, Violet, who has a crush on Mira, another girl in her class. Violet is a bit quirky, often wearing a cowboy hat, and she is also shy. Mira seems to be the only one who ever asks Violet to play. She seems to understand her, and that she makes Violet feel special. Violet desperately wants to impress Mira and imagines grand adventures they might find themselves on, but her shyness holds her back. Violet works up the courage to make a special valentine for Mira, signing it, “Love, Violet,” but she spends the day worried about when or how she should give it to Mira and if Mira would even want it.
The text by Charlotte Sullivan Wild is wonderful. There is a sweetness to the book that avoids becoming twee or saccharine. Wild has a firm grasp on character and imagery. Violet is obsessed with horses, cowboys, and adventures. This is shown not only in Violet’s imaginings of the adventures she and Mira could have together, but in the fact that they play horses together, Violet’s signature hat, and even the way Violet experiences the world. Her heart thunders “like a hundred galloping horses.” The kids in her class ‘hoot and howl’ at a mistake, and Mira has a “leaping laugh.” All of these small details add up to create the kind of dynamic imagery that really pulls readers into the story and makes them feel as if they know, or are, Violet. There is a good mix of longer and shorter passages and pauses for emphasis. The emotions feel real. Older readers may recall their own childhood crushes, both the nerves and the excitement.
Love, Violet is such an excellent depiction of the way young kids often experience crushes. They might feel butterflies, confusion, and excitement as they try to work out new feelings. They know there’s something special about another person and want to spend time with them, and that’s just how Violet feels.
The illustrations by Charlene Chua complement the story perfectly. All of the illustrations are done in watercolour in a distinctive and charming pallet. Because the story takes place on Valentine’s Day, presumably in a colder climate, there is plenty of snow, accompanied by glints and sparkles. Somehow, the pink-tinged yellow sky just works and lends the book a dreamy quality. Violet and Mira, and many of the other children, are dressed in shades of purple. These cooler colours, along with the snow, lend a sense of balance to the images. Still, there is a soft warmth to them that radiates off the page. Violet is drawn with light skin and short red hair, parted to the side, and Mira has a deeper skin tone and shoulder-length curly hair. The children in the background have a diverse array of skin tones, features, and hair styles and textures. The faces of all of the characters are drawn with simple, yet expressive features. There is a great sense of movement to the images, and Chua clearly has a solid understanding of how to draw the reader’s eye across the page. None of the images feel overwhelming, incorporating plenty of space, and there is a mix of one- and two-page spreads.
Love, Violet comes at an interesting and important moment in history. We have been seeing more and more movement, especially in the United States, to ban any kind of queer content with which children may come into contact, whether that’s a book or a lesson plan. From Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill to the many challenges to queer and trans books in school and public libraries, fear and homophobia are running rampant. LGBTQIA+ kids books (especially those featuring queer kids) frequently top the American Library Association’s list of most frequently banned and challenged books. These actions are depriving queer kids of the opportunity to see themselves in what they’re reading and to know that the way they’re feeling is not only not shameful but normal and acceptable. Moreover, they are depriving all kids of the ability to see queer people normalized and not as something to fear.
If this was a story of a young girl with a crush on a boy in her class, most people would likely not bat an eye. As it stands, there will almost certainly be challenges to this book. There will undoubtedly be adults who take umbrage with the depiction of a young girl having a crush on another girl. Too often, adults seem to think that it’s inappropriate to portray kids with queer crushes, claiming that they’re too young to know anything about their sexuality (or are too young to have one). Perhaps they’re right to an extent, and kids are too young to be able to articulate a concept like their own sexuality, but that would apply to all kids, including kids with ‘straight’ crushes. One thing we can be sure of, though, is that kids aren’t too young to know how they feel. And that’s what’s so important about Love, Violet. Violet doesn’t call herself a lesbian or claim any identity for that matter. She’s simply a young girl with a crush on another girl, and she feels what she feels without shame. Many queer people will tell you they knew they were queer when they were young (or experienced queer crushes but didn’t have the vocabulary for them). Many have memories of a first crush in elementary school that they couldn’t tell their friends or families about. Many straight people, too, will recall a crush they had when they were young. The idea that kids ‘can’t know’, but only if they’re queer, is rooted in homophobia and not in fact. Too often, sexuality is confused with sex, itself, leading adults to claim that queer representation is ‘inappropriate’, but this view only serves to highlight a fundamental misunderstanding of queerness, itself. It is for these reasons that I praise Wild, Chua, and the publishers (Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Macmillan) for having the courage to tell this story and to create this important book that will certainly see backlash. It is my hope, though, that the support it will receive, both for its message, and because it is simply a great picture book, will far outweigh any negatives.
Love, Violet is a great first purchase for both public and school libraries of every size. It fills an important gap and explores the common experience of having a crush. It would be a great conversation starter in the classroom and at home. It’s sweet, the illustrations are cute, and it’s written in a way that children will be able to understand.
Alex Matheson is a children’s librarian in Vancouver, British Columbia.