All right, so, Mo Willems. Mo Willems is big business in the picture book world. He seems to churn out a new best-seller every six months or so. Some of his books deserve their popularity; others (in my opinion) do not. Knuffle Bunny is cute and clever, and has interesting illustrations; Knuffle Bunny Too is okay; Knuffle Bunny Free I found forgettable. Similarly, Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus is tons of fun, and manages to be more interactive than most children’s books—but then there are Pigeon books about a hot dog and a puppy and some other dang thing, and none of them are as good as the original. Leonardo, the Terrible Monster is charming, and at least for the moment doesn’t seem to be a franchise.
But my favorite are the Elephant & Piggie books. They’re about two best friends, an elephant named Gerald and a pig named Piggie, and in each book… well, something happens. Now, I feel the E&P series, of which there are at least 15 (!), share some of the inconsistency of Willems’ other series. A lot of them are just silly—and while devoted readers will know that I love silly books, I feel books like Happy Pig Day and We Are In a Book are just fluff: their plots could be summarized as, “Something silly happens. The end.” The really good E&P books, though, are something else. They take a silly lens and use it to look at real-life experiences children are familiar with, and manage to be both goofy and meaningful simultaneously.
Take, for example, Should I Share My Ice Cream? (2011) Gerald gets an ice cream cone, and remembers that Piggie loves ice cream, and tries to decide whether to share. He talks himself into and out of sharing several times in a very amusing way. But by the time he has decided to share, his ice cream has melted! Oh no! He’s despairing when, guess what? Piggie shows up with ice cream, and kindly offers to share with Gerald. It’s silly to watch Gerald’s debate, but it hits home for kids too. Children know just what it’s like to be caught between wanting something all to yourself and wanting to make your friends happy. The book stays well away from being preachy, but manages to show that sharing doesn’t just make your friend happy; it makes you happy too.
My Friend is Sad (2007) is another one in the same vein. Piggie sees that Gerald is sad, and determines to cheer him up. She dresses up as stuff Gerald likes—a cowboy, a clown, a robot—but each time Gerald sees these awesome things, he just gets sadder. Finally Piggie gives up, only to discover that Gerald was sad because he missed his friend. Each time something cool came by, he got even sadder because “my best friend was not there to see it with me.” Again, it’s goofy, but it rests on the familiar experiences of (a) missing your friend, and (b) being frustrated when you can’t cheer up your friend. Very touching.
Finally, the book that is perhaps my favorite: There is a Bird on Your Head (2007). A bird lands on Gerald’s head. Then another. Then they build a nest and lay eggs. Then the eggs hatch. Throughout, Piggie is delighted and Gerald is beside himself with distress; it’s pretty hilarious. Finally, Piggie suggests that Gerald simply ask the birds to leave, and what do you know, it works! At first glance, this one falls into the strictly-silly category of E&P books, but I actually think there’s something deeper here. Specifically, the experience that is very familiar to children of, “Something upsetting is happening to me and no one seems to understand how serious it is!” Have you seen a child so terribly upset about something that they can’t even remember to simply ask for it to stop? That’s this book. But reading the book, kids get to see it from the other side, and recognize that Gerald is being ridiculous. It’s subtle, but it drives the point home. In preschool classrooms I’ve often echoed the book’s language: “Gerald, why not ask the birds to go someplace else?” It’s amazing how, after reading this book, that suggestion hits home sometimes.
So those are my favorite E&P’s. They’re great read-alouds, but also good for kids learning to read to start reading to themselves. I hope Mr. Willems writes more—and remembers what’s good about the good ones.