My Heart

I’ve been diving into social-emotional books this year for a number of reasons, so I was interested in My Heart and saw it fairly soon after it was published. It struck me as a book that was going to challenge any ideas we might have about how a book about feelings should be written and, more importantly, illustrated. As we learn more about the importance of helping children process, honor, and understand their feelings, My Heart is a most welcome book for bringing beauty and simplicity, imagery and color to big, tender feelings.

Illustrator and author — although in this case "poet" might be more apt — Corinna Luyken has created illustrations for this book that are abstract and symbolic, leaving readers the space to process emotions and experiences. The book’s palette is spare, essentially using four colors — black, gray, yellow, and white. By varying the amount of lightness or darkness in the illustrations (with brightening or deepening shades) and by adding soft hints of color, Luyken successfully communicates a wide range of moods — moments of vulnerability, joy, fear, reticence, and more.

In examining picture books, Robin Smith always advised starting with the dust jacket and the hard cover under the jacket, so let’s do that.

My Heart's dust jacket art shows a little girl in yellow overalls bending over to tend a small yellow heart growing out of hard, dark earth. The gray wash in the sky suggests it might be dusk. At the very least, the gray of the sky (rather than a more traditional blue) sets a mood. The back cover is an extension of the same illustration with the soft gray sky, as well as the words: “tiny can grow and broken can mend / and a heart that is closed can still open again.” An auspicious beginning. When the dust jacket is removed, the hard cover of the book shows yellow hearts flying like birds or butterflies, flitting out of a bright yellow cloud, a swath of color that extends to the back of the cover and communicates abundant joy.

The front endpapers show a young person planting yellow hearts into the same hard, dark earth we saw on the dust jacket. On the closing endpapers we see the progress that the growing hearts have made over time — they are bigger and a little more vibrant, with pretty, swirly roots that reach out toward the roots of their neighbors.

Hearts, hearts, and more hearts — the theme begins to emerge. Throughout the book’s illustrations and its poem, hearts are everywhere. Flower buds and blossoms, shrubs and trees, birds, butterflies, wisps of clouds, curves in a wrought-iron fence, a piece of rope or a shadow, stars, spills, rain clouds, puddles, and even a tangled blind pull — the hearts are ever-present: sometimes subtly, at other times not-so-subtly.

Turning to the title page, the illustration (one of my favorites) shows a young girl in her yellow galoshes and with her yellow watering can standing on the last step of a set of stairs. She is smiling down at her flowering plants and shrubs — all of which are heart-shaped. There is something so light and happy in the pleasure with which she looks at the array of hearts to care for and water. 

A page-turn begins the story with the first line of the text/poem: “My heart is a window.” There we see a child in a dark room (very dark — the left side of the double-age spread is almost entirely a nearly black gray), looking out a window into the bright yellow sunshine. On the windowsill are small pots in which tiny heart-shaped flowers are growing; the window's decorations contain a repeated-heart pattern. And we are off on a tour of emotions, explored through obvious and subtle hearts in shadow and in light; in isolation and in courageous reaching-out.

The illustrations are mostly double-page spreads, allowing plenty of room on the pages for either details or emptiness. At first, I felt uncertain about the number of black and gray pages. I am a color person; often, the brighter, the better. But the black and gray pages began to grow on me. It feels like space is being made for the child and the reader to breathe, to explore feelings. Or, in the case of the darker spreads, to take a moment to rest. Luyken manages to make even these darker spreads feel safe.

My favorite illustration accompanies the text: “My heart is a shadow, / a light, and a guide.” It is a soft night scene, the inky night sky twinkling with stars. On the ground, there is a long heart-shaped shadow, formed by two people holding hands and leaning back, as if to appreciate each other better or as if doing a happy dance. (Their bodies form a heart as well.) It feels tender, gentle, and loving. And the stars here, many connected as sparkly, heart-shaped constellations — pure magic. 

The book closes with an empowering message: “Closed or open … / I get to decide.” On the final spread a child stands, eyes closed, smiling, arms spread wide in a field of yellow with gray heart-flowers and yellow heart-birds/heart-butterflies. It is a portrait of a child opening up to all of emotions’ possibilities – with courage and joy.

The Caldecott criteria include (among much more) defining distinguished picture books by “excellence of execution and pictorial interpretation of story theme or concept.” We’ll find out in a few months if this fine book meets the criteria in ways that move this year’s committee to award a medal or honor.


Allison Grover Khoury
Allison Grover Khoury

Allison Grover Khoury is a librarian at Wish Charter School in Los Angeles. 

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Beverlee Pattonallen

Allison’s review of My Heart. motivates me to buy Luyken’s book. I think it might be creatively incorporated into my HeartMath coaching. As the editor of my middle grade novel, Allison demonstrated such a depth of understanding and knowledge as to astound me. Her insight into my intentions, her encouragement and honesty, and her knowledge of my characters seemed deeper than my own. Allison demonstrates the same depth and insights in her review and analysis of My Heart. She sees things that I might miss. She takes me to places of the author’s intentions that I might neglect without her vision and insights. Thank you Allison for your review, and thank you Corinna Luyken for My Heart.

Posted : Sep 23, 2019 04:52

Sam Juliano

One of my absolute favorite Calling Caldecott writers spearheading the appreciation of one of my favorite picture books of 2019, authored and illustrated by one of my favorite talents in the field. It is a winning combination to be sure. As you compellingly assert this poetic projects a powerful message, an alluring minimalist color scheme where yellow is both substance and metaphor, one where the heart is part and parcel to the world around us. It is a book of inordinate positive energy and superlative collaboration of words and illustrations, and you have totally nailed it Allison! Thank you!

Posted : Sep 22, 2019 08:15

Dean Schneider

Thank you, Allison, for your clear and specific guidance through this beautiful title. I appreciate how you used Robin Smith's (my wife's) guidelines and proceeded step by step from cover to endpapers to title page and on, in order. Very helpful.

Posted : Sep 19, 2019 08:51


Thank you, Dean. I'm sorry I never met her, and look forward to meeting you one day.

Posted : Sep 19, 2019 08:51

Molly Sloan

This is a gorgeous book. It gives me chills at the page turns. This is the first book to induce my goosebumps this year. More to come, I'm sure! My favorite part are the two spreads: "There are days it is broken/ But broken can mend, and a heart that is closed can still open again." I love the interplay of the words and illustrations. I appreciate the freedom to interpret the text without having everything explained by the illustrations. The only quibble I have is on the spread for the text, "days its a whisper that can barely be heard." For some reason that text and illustration interplay doesn't quite work for me. I can't quite put my finger on why. Perhaps I am the only one. It may work just fine for everyone else. On the whole this is a beautiful book and I would be very happy to see something else yellow on its cover.

Posted : Sep 19, 2019 06:34


Thanks for your insights, Molly. I appreciate your candor as well.

Posted : Sep 19, 2019 06:34



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