Thursday, January 14, 2010

Drawn to Read: Mo's Mojo

It's "Drawn to Read" time! I am highlighting illustrators of picture and chapter books, that are creating exemplary work — adding style and life to current children's literature. I welcome your suggestions for future illustrators and comments on the one's I post. So fare we have featured "Images of Christmas," with Elise Primavera and Jon J. Muth. We also devoted a week to Adam Rex. Let's give the illustrator's their due and have a good conversation about their work.

Winning a Caldecott Award once in a career would be enough to let most writers retire happily. So what can you say about an author/illustrator who has been awarded the Caldecott three times? Well, you would have to concede that they are pretty darn good. Mo Willems is good. Awarded the Caldecott for "Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!," "Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale," and "Knuffle Bunny Too: A Case of Mistaken Identity" hasn't slowed him down one bit. He seems to bounce through the world of children's literature like a child on Christmas morning. He's having fun and so are his readers. So let's take a closer look at Mo Willems.

Mo Willems was raised in New Orleans where, as he has said on occasion, he was surrounded by characters. This is good for the reader because that is where his books begin — with the character. Willems has an illustration style, which on the surface, appears very simple. Children can relate to the flat shapes and bright colors. But most people don't understand the difficulty that lies in offering an entire character in just a few lines. This is the talent Willems has with his storytelling. He can tell so much with just one small eyebrow mark or the omission of a few words. His characters drive the stories and their own development as illustrations.

Willems is a prolific writer with many wonderful characters so I'll have to contain myself and highlight just a few of his stories. Like many readers I first learned of Willems when I read "Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!" I was amazed. It was a brilliant idea driven entirely by the pigeon's character and desire to, well, drive the bus. But Willems tapped into the psyche of a child and understood that children are told "No!" all day long. They want to have power and be able to release their pent up frustration as well. So the book becomes an interactive story time. With a few strokes of a pencil Pigeon comes to life. His attitude is conveyed through bolder or lighter lines, placement of an eye, it's shape, or hatch marks. It seems so simple, yet it's the simplicity which makes it so difficult to do well. Willems nailed this character and now Pigeon is featured in numerous stories, including "Don't Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late," "Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog" and "Pigeon Wants a Puppy."

Next I came across a book that was truly helpful — "Time To Pee!" My oldest son was potty training and this book made it fun. Filled with illustrations of mice holding signs and explaining the process of using the toilet. It was silly and made potty training fun. The book came with stickers. of different mice embellished with congratulatory sayings, to give to your child when they used the potty. Truth be told, we've actually read the book many times in the years since just because it is funny. The illustrations are so very expressive you can't help but giggle.

Then my family discovered "Knuffle Bunny." We've had our share of Knuffle Bunnies in our family so relating to this tale was easy. When Trixie, a toddler who has yet to speak, loses her Knuffle Bunny she tries desperately to tell her father. He just doesn't understand. She bawls and protests to no avail. When it is discovered that Knuffle is missing there's an all out search until it is discovered and Trixie screams her first words, "Knuffle Bunny!" Unlike other Willems' books this one and its follow-up, "Knuffle Bunny Too: A Case of Mistaken Identity," uses cartoonish drawings over black and white and muted sepia tone photographs of New York City neighborhoods. It's an interesting technique, that allows the city to become a character in the tale. However the beauty of the story is in the personality development. The stylized characters capture all the signs of distress. Trixie grimaces, goes boneless, stands gape-mouthed and bug-eyed. And it is easy to see the confusion and embarrassment in dad's face. Adult and children alike will see themselves in the characters. 

Lately I've been reading the "Elephant and Piggie" books with my youngest son. Like all of Willems' tales they are character driven. Elephant is glass half-full kind and Piggie is happy-go-lucky. They are very different, but they are best friends. These books are designed to encourage early readers to continue learning new words. They are fun and entertaining and designed so that reading distractions are limited. The illustrations are simple and clean.

Willems' success has not slowed him down. He keeps producing new stories. Some with familiar characters and others with new ones destined to become favorites. Look for "Leonardo the Terrible Monster," about a monster who can't seem to scare anyone. He's terrible. There's "Edwina, the Dinosaur Who Didn't Know She Was Extinct," who bakes chocolate chip cookies for everyone, "Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed," "Time to Say Please!," and his newest release, "Big Frog Can't Fit In," a fun pop-out.

Mo Willems began his career on Sesame Street, where he won six Emmy Awards. He probably could have stayed there and been very successful. Instead he took the knowledge of character development and kid-centric story lines that he learned on Sesame Street created a catalog of amazing children's books. 
If you would like to see more Mo Willems visit,, or his blog,

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