Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Rethinking the Pigeon

I was late coming to the Mo Willems appreciation party. Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! made me shake my head in the kids section of Barnes and Noble the first time I read it. I didn't get it. I understood that the pigeon, singularly focused on its ridiculous goal, represented a preschool-aged child. I knew the pleading, begging, bargaining, whining, foot-stomping, petulant pigeon was supposed to be funny, but I wasn't laughing. The bird left me cold.

I put the book back on the shelf and kept leafing through new titles. I didn't think of Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! again until it showed up in the pages of Scholastic's Firefly Books flyer one month. Since I buy any book recognized with a Caldecott that shows up in Firefly, I used my teacher reward points and ordered Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! I read it again when the book arrived, and my original opinion didn't change. If anything, I was maybe even a little bit more disgusted. Why, I wondered, did this book win a Caldecott Honor? It will only encourage this Willems fellow to continue polluting the picture book market.

I shelved the book and didn't give it much thought until this past Monday. One of my students brought a Mo Willems book for Sharing Day, which is kind of like Show and Tell. I hadn't read The Pigeon Wants a Puppy!, but based on my reaction to Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!, I wasn't expecting to like the book. Of course I was right. I didn't like it. I loved it. If I was handing out starred reviews, I'd have given it 5 stars.

How could this be? Have I no convictions? I don't like the pigeon. At least I didn't before. I'm a total fan now. Could it be because I think dogs are the best thing since white go-go boots, and if the pigeon likes dogs the pigeon must be okay?

I needed to see if this was a fluke. I pulled Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! off the shelf and reread it. Oh, my God! What a great book! And the bird is actually kind of charming. What happened? Why am I suddenly a Mo Willems groupie?

It took fourteen 4-year olds to open my eyes to the wonder of Willems. Instead of zipping through the text silently, I read the books out loud to my students. The kids were instantly engaged in both of Willems's books. They were actually dialoging with the pigeon. They were invested in not letting the pigeon drive the bus. They were pointing out the holes in the pigeon's arguments. Puppies don't play tennis, for Pete's sake!

When I finished reading each of the books, all fourteen kids called for an encore. So we read the books twice, and they were just as much fun to read the second time around. In fact, the kids want even more Mo, so I'm heading to the library right now to check out any other pigeon books that Willems fellow was encouraged to write when he won that Caldecott Honor.

Before I go up to the Harvey-Mitchell Memorial Library I have one piece of advice. Resist the urge to judge a picture book after a silent skim through the pages. These books are meant to be read aloud as surely as song lyrics are meant to be sung.


Diane said...

Okay, this is good advice, Resist the urge to judge a picture book after a silent skim through the pages. These books are meant to be read aloud as surely as song lyrics are meant to be sung, but it still doesn't help me understand why the Pigeon won a Caldecott honor. The award is given for a "distinguished" picture book. Here's how ALA defines "distinguished":

marked by eminence and distinction: noted for significant achievement

marked by excellence in quality

marked by conspicuous excellence or eminence

individually distinct

I'll give it distinctness, but achievement, excellence, and quality? I don't get it.

Andy said...

I'm not going to disagree with you, Diane. I might get the spirit of the story now, but I still don't get how it won a Caldecott honor.

DON'T LET THE PIGEON DRIVE THE BUS! is to the Caldecotts what DANCES WITH WOLVES is to the Academy Awards. They are both quite entertaining, but come on! GOODFELLAS was nominated for Best Picture that year, too. You can't tell me the picture book equivalent of GOODFELLAS wasn't passed by in favor of the pigeon book.

Come on!

Mur said...

"These books are meant to be read aloud as surely as song lyrics are meant to be sung. "

This sentence should be tatooed to the writing hand of anyone who even attempts to write a picture book.

Kate Brooks/Emelyn's Mom said...

Hi Andrea,

Thanks for linking over to this blog. I enjoy learning about children's books through the eyes of authors.

Andy said...

Thanks for stopping by, Kate! I'm glad you're enjoying the conversation.