Most adults don’t read children’s books on a regular basis, but with people like Mo Willems writing them, we really should.
With a long line of credits and accomplishments behind him (and more that will stretch ahead, I’m sure), the genius of Willems’ children’s book is in their ability to translate the thoughts and feelings of young children amazingly well, and to do so with a sense of humor that leaves both kids and parents laughing out loud. I can vouch for this; not only have I read hundreds of children’s books during my past decade and a half of teaching, but yes, kids: I’ve ignored the warnings, and tried it at home too.
A graduate of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Willems spent nearly ten years steeped in the world of toddlers, preschoolers and other young children when he wrote and animated for Sesame Street from the early 1990s to 2002. Still managing to keep a foot in the adult world, he performed stand-up comedy during this time too, and recorded essays for BBC radio. It was his foray into children’s literature that brought him to my attention though, and may be the same for many other parents of the “under preteen” set.
I had heard of his 2005 book, Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale, and his series of books featuring a conniving (but still charming) little pigeon, but had never picked them up. Then, I was at home one day, doing something on the computer, when I heard peals of laughter coming from my son’s bedroom. Not just a chuckle, not just a giggle or two, but deep, rolling, gut-busting laughter, the kind that makes me laugh too, by default, when I hear it. Of course curiosity got the best of me, and I had to see what was going on. It turns out that it was another of Willems’ series of books that was responsible for the uproar. My son had checked out some “Elephant & Piggie” books from the library, and it was their hijinks that had him in hysterics. Of course curiosity got the best of me for a second time, and I had to see for myself just what all of the fuss was about. With simple but expressive illustrations, the Elephant & Piggie books deal with everyday issues in children’s lives (sharing, fears, limitations, friendship, etc.) in insightful and silly ways.
You see, Piggie and Elephant are best friends. Elephant’s name is Gerald. Piggie’s name is…Piggie. On his website, Willems explains that “…she was named that because when she was born she looked just like a little Piggie. Elephant Gerald is named after my favorite singer (say it fast).” It’s that sort of little detail that makes the difference; after all, how many named-by-a-child goldfish have you heard of who are “Goldie”, and so on? Gerald is more serious and cautious than Piggie, but they balance each other out like any great “opposites attract” friendship does. Again though, it‘s Willems‘ insight into children‘s outlooks and personalities that bring so much of the fun to his books. A perfect example of this is in We Are In a Book!; Gerald and Piggie’s moods teeter totter, from excitement, to nervousness about what will happen when the book ends, to mischievous delight as they discover that they have the power to make the reader say funny sounding words out loud. Even though our household is partial to the Elephant & Piggie series, the Pigeon’s books are just as funny, with the same amount of charm.
But don’t let me give you the impression that Willems is a one trick pony when it comes to children‘s literature, or that it's just kids and parents that are fans of his work: several of his books have won Caldecott Honors and Theodor Seuss Geisel Medals. Willems has also used his talents to create two animated TV series: The Off-Beats, which ran on Nickelodeon’s Kablam network, and Sheep In the Big City, a Cartoon Network show. Oh, and did I mention that he’s had visual art displayed in museums and galleries too? Or that he’s appeared on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” as the show’s “radio cartoonist“?
So, next time you're at the library, head to the children's section and take a look at some of Willems' books.(Oh, go ahead. Take a lesson from Mo: risk doing some things even if they might seem a little silly at first.) If television is more your thing, check out either (or both) of the TV series I mentioned above. Whichever avenue you take to do it though, I definitely recommend adding a bit of Mo Willems' humor to your life. I should probably leave you with only one small warning. As any fan of his knows, just don't, by any means, let the Pigeon drive the bus!
To find out more about Mo Willems, Gerald and Piggie, the Pigeon, and Willlems' other work, check out his website at www.mowillems.com.