Mo Willems Is a Genius

Mo WillemsLast week, I actually cried while reading my daughter’s bedtime story. Looking back, I think I was set up for this moment.

My family is big fans of the books of Mo Willems and, in my opinion, there is no more imaginative and witty author of children picture books out there today. To say he is this generation Dr. Seuss or Maurice Sendak is not to do his creativity justice. That is not to say he is better than Dr. Seuss; no, what I mean is he is on his own path.

He is incomparable, unique.

And I, honestly, wish his books were around when I was my little ones’ ages. I would have devoured his books like a box of Macaroni and Cheese…

…or like a pigeon with hot dogs.

My wife is a teacher and she is home with our five-year old son and two-year old daughter for the summer; and on those odd days when a “break” is needed from the house, they escape to the library.

They have been going almost weekly and it has been interesting for me to watch my library card on the library’s website fill up to capacity with books each time they go. (Seriously, I’m not sure why she uses my library card. Maybe my wife wants to avoid possible late fees being on her “permanent” record?)

I can always tell which books were picked out by which kid.

Sometimes I like to imagine them as their own little countries and little armies since they have such distinct favorites. My daughter is all about princesses, the color pink and Care Bears (shiver); while my son can’t get enough of jedi masters and superheroes.

(Some would say my son’s book army is stronger, but have you seen the Care Bear Stare in action? It could change all of his troops with a single thought! Just one thought and jedis would be singing and dancing and Batman would be making necklaces of flowers. Beware the bears.)

Yet, while there is a line between their books as thick as a boundary between warring nations, there is one thing that they share on those library visits and that is the books of Mo Willems.  He walks between them as the peacemaker, the Gandhi. And it is his books that they both turn to first when I get home from work.

Each time it is the same, as they lead me to the couch, sit as close as they can, and begin:

“Daddy, read this one… and now this one… and now this one…”

Mo Willems has three books, three!, gracing the New York Times Bestseller list for children picture books right now. His books have been honored with three Caldecott Honors, Carnegie Medals and numerous other honors. Pretty amazing for books with silly titles like Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, Edwina, the Dinosaur Who Didn’t Know She was Extinct, and Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed.

Yes, Mo Willems books are silly fun, but if you brush them off as only that you miss the subtle style of Mr. Willems’ lessons; for they are there, through example, not exactly spelled out.

PigeonHis most popular series are his books around a character named… well… Pigeon who is a pigeon. Now bear with me, these are works of parenting genius. Let me explain.

The Pigeon books (the most recent being The Duckling Gets a Cookie!?) are based always around a child’s tantrum. The Pigeon, like a typical two-year old, wants something, and the parental role is given to the child reader to say no as the pigeon negotiates and begs to either drive a bus, stay up late or eat a cookie.

You see what he is doing there? He is flipping the roles! Teaching the young child how it feels to be a parent and how they look when they are acting like the Pigeon. Giving the child something to think back on the next time they get upset.

Genius, I tell you.

Like Maurice Sendak there can be darkness and fear in his books, but in his books it can be beaten.

Fear is to be laughed at.

From hopeless terrible monsters like Leonardo, to existential conundrums, like his wonderful children’s book entitled We are in a book!, everything can be solved, every challenge is a moment to learn something, to grow.

My personal favorite That is Not a Good Idea!  is an interactive book that mirrors silent movies of the 1920’s and includes as well an audience of baby birds reacting to each scene. My children (and me) laugh at this one each time we read it.

His Knuffle Bunny trilogy, his love letters to his daughter’s childhood, are just as special to me. Over the course of the books we watch as his daughter grows and matures until the last book where we get a glimpse of her grown, a parent of her own little one. In each book, the Knuffle Bunny (a favorite toy of his daughter’s) is lost and then found. It is these moments of uncertainty that draws their family closer together. There is so much love there.

Mr. Willems must be one hell of a great dad.

Last week, after a trip to the library, my wife told me I had to read City Dog, Country Frog to my daughter at bedtime. When she said it was by Mo Willems, I could have grabbed my girl right there and ran upstairs to the bedroom… but I waited… tried to be patient, imagining a silly story about two fun animals. My wife wouldn’t tell me more about the book, saying simply I needed to experience it for myself.

Finally 7 PM arrived, and after a too-speedy brushing of the teeth, a quick hug for the brother, we were on her bed, and her head was finally laying against my shoulder.

The first thing I noticed was that this book didn’t look like one of his other books. His books typically all have a unique visual creativity to them, but this time the art was handled by Jon J. Muth giving everything a warm realistic tint.

City Dog Country FrogCity Dog, Country Frog is a story about friendship and death.

Yes, it is a children’s story about death and it is beautiful.  And as I began to sense where the work was going, it was becoming almost hard to control my emotions. A part of me almost wondered if I should stop reading it, hide this truth about life from the innocent and perfect soul resting near me, so happy.

But I went on in my reading, because we are all going on to this end, as obvious as the last page in any book. It is the great inevitability we all share.

Death is a part of life and the book doesn’t hide from the sadness, the loss, but it also finds hope, by telling the readers how it is best to look at the experience and how to continue. No, I don’t mean religion or afterlife or anything debatable like that. This ending, this moment that we all will share, simply as that. Death, the end. And this book is a wonderful introduction to this great truth.

Mo Willems once again surprised me…

My two-year old noticed my tears (it is hard to hide things from her). She leaned over to me, very close to my face, as if she wanted to study me closely. “Tears?”

“Yes,” I replied. “Daddy liked that story. Daddy liked it very much.”

“I do too,” she said and took the book from me, planning to look at it again by herself.

A Jane Austen DaydreamIf you liked reading my review, why not check out some of my published books? I’ve had four novels published in the last few years, the new A Jane Austen DaydreamMaximilian Standforth and the Case of the Dangerous DareMy Problem With Doors and Megan. You can find them via my author page here, or Doors and Megan as an eBook on Google eBooks here. Thanks for reading!

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