In a hilarious interview, the late Maurice Sendak describes his work as a children's book author: "I don't write for children. I write." Perhaps this philosophy explains why some picture books maintain a certain appeal for those of us who have outgrown kid-lit. This appeal is not just nostalgia, as I learned when I was charmed by Simona Ciraolo's Hug Me, published last year.
In playful colored-pencil illustrations, Hug Me tells the story of Felipe, a small cactus who wants nothing more than a hug. Unfortunately, his cacti relations strongly discourage hugs, which don't mix well with their prickly dispositions. When an attempt at a hug turns disastrous, Felipe begins a search for love, friendship and the elusive embrace. The immediate aesthetic elements of this book win over adult readers: a smiling succulent, an art style that would work well on boutique stationery. But the central difficulties that Felipe faces -- not fitting in with one's tribe, resorting to loneliness -- are ones that many of us can relate to regardless of our age.
Though love wins in the end of Hug Me, the world this book portrays is rather hostile. Felipe runs away from his insensitive family after accidentally "injuring" an anthropomorphic (and terrifying) balloon. This has apparently alarmed some readers, who believe that children's books shouldn't portray such a depressing world. But worse things have happened in adorable children's classics -- Beatrix Potter's Squirrel Nutkin loses his tail after being nearly skinned alive by a tyrannical owl, and then there's that Maurice Sendak book in which goblins snatch a baby from her bed. Hug Me has an honest and optimistic message: while love may not be all around us, there is love in the world, and it's worth seeking.