My fondness for Mo Willems harkens back to my Summer 2010 graduate class, Art of the Picture Book. As a culminating project, I had to select, research, analyze, and critique a collection of picture books by a children’s author. Who would be the lucky recipient of my studies? The prolific pillars of children’s literature were obvious choices for my classmates–Eric Carle, Rosemary Wells, Jan Brett, Kevin Henkes. But I desired to select an author that would implicate my first grade students’ preferences. One day I noticed all my copies of Mo Willems’ books were checked out of my classroom library and in the eager hands of my students. There was a hush over the classroom as my students were just mesmerized in reading these books. In an impromptu conference, I asked a student why this particular book, Edwina, the Dinosaur Who Didn’t Know She Was Extinct was selected for self-reading. The student responded, “It’s by the Pigeon author and I’m reading it so I can find the Pigeon.” A-Ha! Analogous to the “Hidden Mickey” phenomena at Walt Disney World, the searching for the hidden Pigeon is a must-do activity for all of Willems’ picture books readers. I wondered how this Pigeon character came to possess my students with such a steadfast fascination. Fortunately, it didn’t take months of research to figure out origins of this hidden Pigeon phenomena. One read of Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! to a roomful of six-year-olds will compel any person to become a fan of Willems’ Pigeon.
Pigeon has an attitude. According to Willems, “the Pigeon hates it when I don’t make a book about him.” So what is a pigeon to do? “He gets very, very frustrated,” explains Willems in an online video interview, “so whenever I’m working on another project, while I’m not looking, he sneaks into the project that I’m working on.” (Barnes & Noble) This crafty pigeon appears in every book illustrated by Willems. Maybe this is just Willems’ homage to the Pigeon that launched his career and debuted as a 2004 Caldecott Honor Book. Regardless, this hidden Pigeon has young readers searching him out with fervor and honing those reading skills of making text-to-text connections on a very basic level.
I can personally attest to this growing hidden pigeon phenomenon. Every school year as a new class of first graders enters my reading domain, finding the Pigeon reaches cult-like status. Albeit, costuming oneself as Pigeon on character dress-up day aides this process.
Fast forward to Willems’ latest endeavor, That Is Not a Good Idea! It breaks the mold of literary conventions just like his previous postmodernistic works. Harkening back to the days of silent films, Willems fashions That Is Not a Good Idea! as a movie in picture book form and features the plight of the wide-eyed damsel-in-distress, Plump Goose, at the hand of an evil villain, Hungry Fox. Borrowing from cinematic conventions, intertitles of white typeface with graphic, abstract borders on black background narrate the story and present both the main characters’ inner monologue and outer dialogue. Interspersed within the narrative is a gaggle of boundary-breaking goslings, introduced as Baby Geese. Together, Baby Geese and reader comprise the collective audience watching this suspenseful narrative unfold. With increasing despair, Baby Geese warn “That is not a good idea!” as Plump Goose accepts each of the Sly Fox’s invitations. The reader echoes Baby Geese’s sentiments and similarly voices alarm. But why?
Not only do the descriptors of the characters’ names infer narrative arc, “Hungry” and “Plump,” but the illustrated characters are reminiscent of Beatrix Potter’s naive and overly-trusting Jemima Puddle-Duck when introduced to the dapper sandy-whiskered gentleman, a cunning fox. From clothing–Jemima is dressed in a blue poke bonnet; Plump Goose is dressed in a peasant-like blue kerchief–to the invitation to his home and a promise of dinner, the plots parallel one another. Such an understanding compels the reader to connect the two stories. A reader may even connect That Is Not A Good Idea! to Little Red Riding Hood, albeit a wolf has to be substituted for the fox. To a child reader the difference between a fictional fox and a wolf is negligible; in both tales these canines species represent the evil character seeking to commit a wrongdoing to an innocent female victim.
But unlike Potter’s classic tale or Little Red Riding Hood, Willems delivers a comedic and unexpected twist that turns the readers’ rendering of good versus evil on its head. It is this humorous ending that initially confused most of my english as second language readers (“ESOL”)–not because of the complexity of the plot but rather due to the use of the masculine objective personal pronoun “him.” A brief clarification of the difference between “him,” the Hungry Fox, and “her,” the Plump Goose, had my ESOL students giggling with understanding. I figured the confusion necessitated a second re-reading. The second time around resulted in uproarious laughter from all. Yes!!! And so, I questioned my students to reflect–What is your favorite part? Why do you like it?–using the sentence frame: I liked when _______ because _______. Here are three of the responses:
- “I liked when the Baby Geese yell ‘That is really really really NOT a good idea!’ because I was thinking that too!”
- “I liked when I saw Pigeon hiding on the bridge (illustration) because I knew he had to be in the book because Mo Willems wrote it.”
- “I liked when the Plump Goose tricked the Hungry Fox because I thought the Goose was going into the soup but the Fox’s head went into the soup.”
Lastly, in reading That Is Not a Good Idea!, I wondered if the setting, reminiscent of an old-European city, pays homage to Willems’ Dutch roots. In sharing Knuffle Bunny Free: An Unexpected Diversion with a friend of mine who works at The Netherlands’ embassy in Washington, D.C., my Dutch friend identified the location of the photos as being in Breda, his childhood hometown. I may have to enlist his help in determining if the setting is real or imagined. Nonetheless, the subdued pastel hues of the background contrast the bright yellow Baby Geese and provide the reader with a visual break from the narrative as it cuts to the audience. This helps the reader to comprehend the role of Baby Geese and why they couldn’t intervene on behalf of the victim.
In my humble opinion, Mo Willems has become the Dr. Seuss of the 21st Century in penning wildly popular children’s picture books. That Is Not a Good Idea! delivers guaranteed laughs.
Willems, Mo. Interview by Barnes & Noble. “Meet the Writers: A Conversation with Mo Willems.” Pigeon Presents! Hyperion Children, n.d. Web. 10 Jul. 2010.