of the Center for Children's Books:
Each month we offer a focus on a particular author or artist. Sometimes we use this space to discuss a rising new talent or an established star, but we also like to celebrate those who now live on only in the rich legacy of their books. See the archive for focus pieces from previous months.
Rising Star—Mo Willems
Young audiences always enjoy appealing characters with whom they can identify, and Caldecott Honor-winning illustrator and author Mo Willems has created an impressive range of them: from a terrible monster who can't scare anyone ( Leonardo the Terrible Monster ) to a preverbal child struggling to express in baby-speak that her beloved bunny has gone missing ( Knuffle Bunny ) to a cantankerous pigeon who finds his ambitious desires to operate heavy machinery continually thwarted ( Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! ). It's appropriate that Willems, with his history on Sesame Street, manages to create protagonists who perfectly demonstrate the volatile emotions and frequent frustrations of early childhood.
Overall, though, it is his pigeon that is most memorable, which is perhaps why Willems has revisited this alternately charming and cranky creation in several picture book and board book sequels. The poor pigeon never seems to get what he wants, whether it is to drive a bus, stay up all night, or have his hot dog all to himself, and his frustration is vividly conveyed through a skillful interweaving of dialogue and minimalist illustrations. Fluctuating pigeon emotions are achieved with a combination of catchy balloon dialogue, frantic wing flapping, and the pigeon's expressive eye (the single-eye view a consequence of his almost perpetual profile position), whose ever-shifting pupil—whether plaintively looking up, fixed at center with a dead-on stare, or under the signature half-mast lid that signals the beginning of serious fowl frustration—accompanies an impressive verbal arsenal. In Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!, pigeon politicking includes placating (“I'll just steer”), wheedling (“I never get to do anything!”), bribery (“five bucks”), and appeals to idealism (“I have dreams, you know!”). As frame to page ratio increases, mirroring the pigeon's increasing desperation, his panicked pecking around for a tactic that will put him in literally and figuratively in the driver's seat culminates in a full page explosion: “LET ME DRIVE THE BUS!!!” Though a funnel-like dark cloud over the pigeon's head signals despair, his sulk lifts when a truck appears on the scene; wings pressed together and eye now demurely closed, the pigeon appears to be preparing for his next round of persuasion.
The pigeon tales' charm comes not just from their appealing avian protagonist but also from the viewer's position of power and opportunity for interaction. Both Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! and Don't Let The Pigeon Stay Up Late! open with an adult figure's leaving the scene and putting the audience in charge of the irrepressible bird, and the pigeon's direct address of the audience means his fervent pleas to be allowed to drive buses and to stay up all night invite gleeful denials from young listeners. In Don't Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late! the pigeon pulls out the big guns to sway the withholding listener, chanting in protest (“Hey, hey! Ho, ho! This here Pigeon just won't go!”), working emotional appeal using the knuffle bunny (“You can't say no to a bunny, can you?) and finally, pure begging: “Pleeeeeaaaasssseee!” The Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog! introduces another character, the duckling, whose persistence proves even stronger than the pigeon's, ultimately breaking down his initial resistance to sharing his hot dog. The world-weary stare achieved when both pigeon eyes make a rare appearance forward augment the pigeon's audience appeals: “Can you believe this guy!?!” ;“I can't take it anymore!”; and “What am I supposed to do?” The audience's sympathies may be torn between the “finders, keepers” ethic of the pigeon and the duckling's frank and persistent curiosity; fortunately, when the hot dog is broken in half for the birds to share, it's possible to have it both ways.
By interweaving of dialogue and spare but expressive illustrations, Willems creates a character appealing precisely because we can identify with his appetites while simultaneously enjoying the guilty pleasure of not granting them. Shifting and fluid identification between pigeon and implied reader thus offers a dual pleasure: while this fractious fowl's desires are frustrated in ways that only the youngest can truly empathize with, the pigeon also offers children the rare opportunity to deliver their own vehement vetoes. While his frantic flapping and baleful eye are snicker-worthy, it's also true that we've all been denied, and the youngest are right there with the pigeon in the trenches of refusal and compromise.
--Loretta M. Gaffney, Reviewer
Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! ; written and illus. by Mo Willems. Hyperion, 2003. (BCCB 5/03)
Don't Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late! ; written and illus. by Mo Willems. Hyperion, 2006. (BCCB 4/06)
Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale ; written and illus. by Mo Willems. Hyperion, 2004. (BCCB 10/04)
Leonardo the Terrible Monster ; written and illus. by Mo Willems. Hyperion, 2005. (BCCB 11/05)
The Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog! ; written and illus. by Mo Willems. Hyperion, 2004. (BCCB 7/04)