If you’re under four feet in height, chances are very good that some of your favorite people aren’t even people, they’re Piggie and Gerald, the elephant, and Pigeon. These characters have captured the hearts of many small humans and their parents. They’re also the creations of one of the most talented children’s authors and illustrators of this generation - Mo Willems.
I had a chance to see him read to an enthralled audience of toddlers at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Massachusetts last month. I was invited to join our daughter and her family because I’m responsible for filling their shelves with Mo Willems books. He is naturally engaging and effortlessly interacts with his awestruck fans. He read his newest book Sam, the Most Scaredy-cat Kid in the Whole World, then the kids were invited to meet Gerald and Piggie before waiting in line to have Mo sign their books.
I wasn’t sure that my three-year-old granddaughter would understand that this man was responsible for the stories she’s memorized by heart, but she seemed to know exactly who he was. For the next few days of my visit, she’d open her new book to show me his signature and the illustration of Piggie’s head he drew on her title page.
I learned a lot about Mo Willems from a fascinating profile Rivka Galchen wrote in The New Yorker last February. While he certainly admires the classic authors of the last generation, Theodore Geisel, P.D. Eastman and Eric Carle, himself, Willems brings a new sensibility to children’s books. The prior generation was concerned with action and not emotion, where Willems’ books address the interior emotions of his characters. Pigeon is especially relatable to toddlers. Pigeon is frequently frustrated by the things he can’t do (like drive a bus) and the things he has to do (take a bath.) He expresses his frustration in typical toddler fashion, but most importantly, he learns how to calm himself and work through those tough emotions. Gerald and Piggie’s friendship is equally fraught with miscommunication and subsequent resolution. These emotional skills are easier to help your kids develop if you can refer to that time Pigeon was so mad, or when Piggie’s feelings were hurt. In some ways, the characters literally start feeling like part of the family.
Willems humor runs throughout the fifty-odd books he’s written over the last thirteen years. It’s much easier on the parents who are called upon to read a story a hundred times, if that story is enjoyable to them as well. I highly recommend that Mo Willems become part of your children’s or grandchildren’s home library. His books make wonderful gifts and are pure joy to read.
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