Amherst Bulletin

The perfect heart

By Bonnie Wells
Staff Writer

Published on February 01, 2008

Soon refrigerators around the Valley will sprout fanciful valentines, handmade with love by little hands wielding snub-nosed scissors. Some may remember crafting those cards with care for moms and dads, grandmas and grandpas - the paper doilies, the pesky paste, the tongue clamped firmly between the teeth, and best of all, the surprise presentation, the oohs and ahhhhs. A new children's picture book by Corinne Demas of Amherst brings it all back.

"Valentine Surprise," just out by Walker & Company, with illustrations by R. W. Alley, follows the secret labors of Lily, a little girl who starts a week before Valentine's Day to make the perfect valentine for mommy. She's going for a heart shape, but the one she makes on Monday is too pointy. Tuesday's heart is too round. And so it goes through the week, with hearts too square, too curvy, too skinny, too fat and downright lopsided, bringing subtle lessons in shapes and the days of the week in their wake.

When the big day comes, smack out of time and materials, Lily gets an idea. She pulls out the Scotch tape, and has nearly all the rejects taped together when the clock runs out and mommy comes in to wish her a happy Valentine's Day. Lily holds up her motley array saying, "I tried to make you a valentine, but it didn't turn out right."

The touching way mommy saves the day brings a catch to the throat and a lesson for kids about perfection and the true spirit of Valentine's Day.

"My books always start out personal, then I think, how can I take this idea and make it speak to a larger audience," said Demas. "When I made hearts when I was a little girl, I just took scissors and started cutting, and it's hard to make that shape. It wasn't until later that someone showed me how to fold the paper to get it right."

Demas, a professor of English at Mount Holyoke College and a fiction editor of the Masschusetts Review, is the author of two collections of short stories, two novels, a memoir and 17 picture books for children. Her 2004 "Saying Goodbye to Lulu," navigating the death of a pet, won the ASPCA Henry Bergh Children's Book Award. "Valentine" is her first book with Rhode Island illustrator R.W. Alley, whose 100 books for children includes the Paddington series. In addition to drawing Lily as an irresistibly engaging and expressive regular kid, Alley's colored pencil and watercolor illustrations build in several charming and subtle subplots involving Lily's pet kitties, the birds outside the window and the characters on a calendar shown in the background.

Demas said "Valentine Surprise" also held a surprise for her. When the Kirkus review came out, it mentioned that Lily's hearts, when strung together, spelled a valentine phrase. Demas hadn't noticed it, so she called up the publisher, who said they hadn't noticed it either. They called the illustrator, who said - you can see where this is going - he hadn't noticed it either. One of those things that makes you say, hmmm.