Jerome by Heart: A tender illustrated celebration of love too boundless for labels to contain

by Maria Popova

A bold and jubilant defense of the heart’s indomitable truth.

To love every fiber of another’s being with every fiber of your own is a rare, beautiful, and thoroughly disorienting experience — one which the term in love feels too small to hold. Its fact becomes a gravitational center of your emotional universe so powerful that the curvature of language and reality bends beyond recognition, radiating Nietzsche’s lamentation that language is not the adequate expression of all realities. The consummate reality of such a love is the native poetry of existence, known not in language but by heart.

The uncontainable, unclassifiable beauty of such love is what French writer Thomas Scotto explores with great tenderness in Jerome by Heart (public library), translated by Claudia Bedrick and Karin Snelson, and illustrated by the ever-wonderful Olivier Tallec — the story of a little boy named Raphael and his boundless adoration for another little boy, Jerome, which unfolds in Scotto’s lovely words like a poem, like a song.

He always holds my hand.
It’s true.
Really tight.

Jerome always sees Raphael from far away, shares his snacks with him, and pairs up with him on school trips to the art museum. Under Tallec’s sensitive brush, we see them standing side by side, peering into a painting together — a sweet embodiment of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s assertion that “love does not consist of gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.”

That’s why I love Jerome.

It doesn’t bother me at all.
Raphael loves Jerome.
I can say it.
It’s easy.

Jerome and Raphael share a love pure and infinite. It flows between them at its most buoyant and expansive, which means its most unselfconscious. But the grownups around them, caught in the tyranny of labels and classifications too small, are made uneasy by its largeness — a tragic testament to Bob Dylan’s observation that “people have a hard time accepting anything that overwhelms them.”

Eventually, Raphael begins to feel the weight of their unease at so boundless a bond. He sorrows in his dad’s lament that Jerome isn’t strong because he doesn’t play soccer and in his mom’s impression of Jerome as merely “polite,” in her blindness to “how warm his smile is” and to the “secret hideout” Raphael has in it.

Against the smallness of his parents’ perception, Raphael takes solace in the largeness that fills his own heart.

I’ve made up my mind.
From now on, every day is for Jerome.

Mornings are happy from the start!
By lunch, we’ve laughed so hard our stomachs hurt.
And by dinner, I’ve stocked up on enough of Jerome to last me the whole night.
That’s important.

When someone has come to fill your heart and your world so completely, it is hard — impossible, even — not to wish to talk about them all the time, to everyone. But at the breakfast table, when Raphael begins to share the lovely dream he had about Jerome the night before, his parents meet his words with punitive unloveliness with an edge of shame.

Dad stares at his shoelaces, like he doesn’t hear a word I’m saying.
Mom digs through my backpack and sighs,
“Eat your cereal, Raphael.”

[…]

It’s not like Jerome is a bad word.

I swallow my smile
and go to my room
to calm down.

In his room, Raphael ransacks his toys to find the perfect present for Jerome — that universal and irrepressible impulse to shower the beloved with gifts, to concretize in atoms some expression, however inadequate in its materiality, of the intangible vastness contained in the heart.

I circle around and around my bed.
Around and around my table.
Around and around my questions.

But these constricting questions, Raphael seems to realize in the end, have been imposed upon him from the outside. Inside him, there is only love, limitless and jubilant. This small child with a large and full heart emerges with a courageous testament to Rilke’s abiding insistence that “for one human being to love another… is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks… the work for which all other work is but preparation.”

I forget my mom and dad.
I think only about Jerome,
who I know by heart.

And I say — yes.
Raphael loves Jerome.
I can say it.
It’s easy.

The immeasurably wonderful Jerome by Heart — a crowning addition to the best LGBT children’s books — comes from the visionary Brooklyn-based independent publisher Enchanted Lion Books, who gave us such tender and thoughtful treasures as Big Wolf & Little Wolf (also illustrated by Tallec), Cry, Heart, But Never BreakThe Lion and the BirdThe Paper-Flower Tree, and Bertolt.

Illustrations courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books; book photographs by Maria Popova

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