A few months back I said I wasn’t going to write about picturebooks anymore. I planned to post about the chapter books Cora and I have been reading together but then life got in the way and I haven’t taken the time to write about Harry Potter, My Side of the Mountain, or Bone. In the meantime, my friend Amy and I submit a proposal about picturebooks for the 2018 National Art Education Association convention, our local children’s bookstore – Cover to Cover (Columbus, OH) – announced they are changing owners and moving out of the neighborhood, and Cora started reading on her own. All this brings me back, happily, to share my thoughts on the stack of Mo Willems books currently perched on our potty.
When I first read Willems Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus I couldn’t understand what so many people, including those who award the Caldecott Medal, saw in it. It seemed to me, frankly, a stupid story with lackluster illustrations.
Then came Willems’ Elephant and Piggie books, first introduced to me during a read aloud in Cora’s preschool classroom. Her teacher had purchased a copy of the then newly released Thank You Book which was to be the final of 25 books about Gerald and Piggie. I couldn’t understand the appeal. Again the story seemed weak and the illustrations overly simplistic and uninspiring.
Then came kindergarten. Cora’s teacher used Elephant and Piggie throughout the year: They listened to the stories during read aloud. The kids drew copies of the book covers and arranged them in a timeline based on when they were published. And they read from them in a readers’ theater at the end of school celebration, demonstrating work they’d done on their reading, intonation, and collaborative storytelling skills.
My heart melted as Cora and her classmate read the book they’d chosen to a group of kids and parents. She was reading! Out loud in front of a crowd!
All of a sudden Piggie and Gerald didn’t seem so bad. The next time we went to the library we sought them out. We brought a few home and Cora asked me to read them with her, taking turns reading different parts. It was fun and it was her choice. She wanted to read unlike so many other times I had tried to coax her to practice with me in the past.
Parents of young readers know it’s hard to find books on the level that your child is reading. Each publisher seems to have a different labeling system and none seem quite accurate. But Piggie and Gerald really are great first readers. They have simple sentences made up of words that are easy to sound out. They have repetition. They are silly in all the ways kids recognize as silly.
But I’m still not enthralled with Piggie and Gerald as art objects. They seem to be some other thing, something overly instrumental in comparison with the books I’ve written about before in this space. While some of those had instrumental value, they also took aesthetics into primary consideration. I don’t see that in Elephant and Piggie.
But then Willems is addressing another set of demands. In a recent interview with The New Yorker, Willems reported:
The challenge for me is that my goal is to be funny, but within the constraint of using only about forty to fifty words…That’s why I say that early readers are hard writers—writing them isn’t easy….I sometimes joke that I write for functional illiterates…Because these stories aren’t meant to be read once—they’re meant to be read a thousand times. In that way, they’re more like a song than like the score for a film. You don’t listen to ‘A Boy Named Sue’ for the ending.
I’m still want to know more about Willems relation to Piggie and Gerald. Were they just money makers in the end or did he dream of lives for these characters outside the pages of their books? What has he said about his illustrational style in these books? Whom and what did he look to for inspiration for these books? I’m interested to learn more and welcome links in the comments to interviews with or discussions of Elephant and Piggie you may have read.
In the meantime, Thank you Mr. Willems. Thank you Miss Maureen. Together you got Cora reading to herself (on and off the potty). I’m so proud!