When I try to write about all the children's books that I adore, I have to work hard not to write about Mo Willems all the time.
How does he do it every, single time?
How Do I Love His Books? Let Me Count the Ways
His books are beautiful. I just adore his muted color palette. His drawings are simple, yet expressive. I love loads of white space in my images, and he provides it in spades. His characters move around the pages all the time.
He is funny. And, he always manages to hit that sweet spot of ridiculous and absurd, while simultaneously striking a perfect emotional chord, making his stories just the right amount of touching. Sometimes, there is even be a lesson to learn at the end. But teaching that lesson never gets in the way of the story. His moral is never heavy handed. His sweet is never treacly.
He marries his words and illustrations, and uses both equally to propel his story forward.
And then, there are his pigeon books. Where it all began.
What makes those books so unique and entertaining, Is that the characters are actually speaking to you, the reader!
Teachers are always trying to ask the right kinds of questions to promote discussions about books. There are graduate level courses taching strategies to engage children in literature, so that reading is an active experience. Mo Willems and his pigeon do that work for us teachers quite nicely. Thank you very much, Mo!
The characters in his story look straight out at the readers, tell them things, and ask them questions. When first encountering these books, I have seen children smile but look a little bewildered. They are not used to talking back to their books. But at least one child will usually break the silence and then the fun begins.
When that pigeon asks to drive the bus, children love to shout out, "No!"
Our pal, Mo, began this series with the first of his pigeon books, Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus. We all know what it is like when a sequel does not quite live up to its original, but that is not the case with this pigeon. No siree, Bob.
Each book begins with a human character asking the reader for help in taking care of this pigeon. Young children are not often put in charge of things, so this is a cine change of pace for the intended audience.
When the human adult leaves, it is time for the reader to take responsibility as the pigeon tries to convince him/her otherwise.
Part of the magic is that the pigeon's negotiating and pleading, and eventual tantrum is every child. Sometimes the pigeon is arguing over something absurd, like driving a bus. (How would he even reach the pedals?) Sometimes it is a familiar argument, like taking a bath, or staying up late.
We early childhood educators love pretend play because of the way that role playing helps children learn about the world. Children are always the patient, the cared for, the child, and never the doctor or the parent. But when they play, they can make their pretend babies go to bed, tell them to stop crying, they can give shots, check heartbeats, even write prescriptions. In this way they are processing their experiences both cognitively and emotionally. And, they get a turn at being in charge.
Mo Willems gives them the same practice here. They get to enforce the rules and say no to the Pigeon's requests. And, I believe that when that happens, they subconsciously gain some perspective on their own behavior and that of their grown ups.
Humor and games are a great way to manage difficult behavior in children. Mo Willem's gives us all that in one little obstreperous pigeon. Or, at the very least, he makes us realize we are not alone.
Let's take a break from our good friend Mo for now. I presume he will be back on this blog some time in the future.
While Pigeon books get children to talk back in a way that most books don't, Press Here by Herve Tullet engages the reader in a different way. His words and illustrations work together to ask the reader to press, shake, and move the actual book. Again, teachers love using books to inspire movement activities. Here, reading the book is a movement activity. Brilliant!
I don't have much more to add, except, I just never would have thunk of such a thing, and it always amazes me when someone thinks of something that hasn't been done before.
If you like Press Here, Tap the Magic Tree, by Christie Matheson is another books that gets the reader moving, pushing, pressing, and shaking the pages.
Here's to great authors, great books, people who think of things that didn't exist before, and people who take little people seriously!
Click the photos for links to even more pigeon books: