Elephant and Piggie written and illustrated by Mo Willems, RL 1

In honor of the publication of the 20th book in the Elephant & Piggie series which debuted in 2007, I have updated this review from 11/09. Books are shown in order of publication. I definitely miss my days as a bookseller when I had the pleasure of reading these out loud over and over, to everyone from toddlers to visiting classes of sixth graders! **Update: 22 book series**

Ok. I'll be honest. I am jealous of Mo Willems' talent. And sense of humor. And his illustration skills. I tell you that now to preface anything negative I may blurt out at any point during this review. He has a HUGE following of devoted parents and children and, while I don't always share their level of devotion, I do get it and I do think that it is deserved. I jumped on board the Mo Willems bus when Knuffle Bunny:  A Cautionary Tale came out in 2004, the year my youngest son was born, and we loved (and love) that book to bits. I cheered when it won the Caldecott Honor, especially since Willems's illustrations are non-traditional when it comes to that award. I don't find the Pigeon books quite as funny as every child I know, mostly because these books are bit difficult to read out loud and require quite a lot of acting on the reader's part to really do them justice and I am not always up for that or for Pigeon's unique personality.

Possibly because of my luke-warm feelings for Pigeon, I did not immediately embrace the first few Elephant & Piggie books to hit the shelves in 2007. I read them at story time at the bookstore and to my son at home but was a bit underwhelmed by them overall. Also, I was put off by the price of the books - $8.99 for what essentially is a beginning reader book when most beginning reader books are published in paperback and cost $3.99 - except for the iconic Dr. Seuss. In the two years since their arrival, I have had the chance to read more Elephant & Piggie books, both at home and at work, and have come to appreciate them on many levels, although I still wish they would come out in paperback, thus making them more widely accessible to emerging readers, which is exactly who these books, vetted by an early learning specialist, are aimed at. For a really great discussion between three bloggers who also wear the hats of children's librarians and mothers, read the tri-review posted by Jules and Eisha at a sort of insider-kid-lit-blog that has tons of fascinating interviews with authors and illustrators, 7 Impossible Things, and Pam Coughlan at MotherReader. Two of the three reviewers discuss in detail what makes a beginning reader book good (repetition of words, picture cues) and how they have watched their children grow as readers while having these books read to them and reading them on their own. As Pam Coughlan writes, "The Elephant & Piggie books use simple words and repeat them to improve word recognition. They give clear picture cues to the reader with no distracting background. Prediction is another important component of learning to read. For example, when the two birds [in There is a Bird on Your Head] fly off and get some sticks, the child can predict that they will biuld a nest." Sure enough, the word "nest" appears on the following page. And, as all three point out, the Elephant & Piggie books are highly readable, for parents and children. I was lucky enough to nab 7 of the 10 current titles (I am Going will be published in January of 2010) during a visit to the library and watched as my husband and son worked their way through the whole pile in one sitting. Being such short books, this didn't take them long, but I did notice that my son frequently asked to have a book read twice in a row upon finishing and my husband was more than happy to do so.

And what, exactly, is so great about Gerald the elephant and Piggie? In terms of Arnold Lobel's Frog and Toad, which is my measure for all fictional beginning reader couples, Gerald and Piggie are definitely a more contemporary pair. You really can't compare Frog and Toad with Elephant & Piggie because Lobel's books are much longer and thus written at a higher reading level that allows for more depth of story and character development. This said, Willems manages to pack a lot of personality into his characters and books, most of which have fewer than 150 words total and usually only 60 - 75 different words in all. Of the two, Gerald seems to be slightly more knowing, stable and stoic and perhaps this is why he has a name. Piggie is a bit more manic, prone to joyous fits of exuberance and tearful bouts or sorrow. This reminds me precisely of every toddler I have had the pleasure of knowing intimately and is perhaps why these books appeal to young children.

And, the bottom line is, Mo knows little kids. He can think like them and write and illustrate characters who act like them. And, Mo knows parents as well. In one of my favorites, I Will Surprise My Friend, Elephant and Piggie see a squirrel hide then jump out and surprise his friend and they decide to do the same, however they neglect to determine who will hide and who will be surprised. This makes for some funny tension as the two sit on either side of a large rock. When nothing happens Gerald begins to think the worst and imagines Piggie's sad fate. Who among us parents has not done this at one time or another?  Piggie, however, figures Gerald got hungry and went home for lunch. Who among the toddlers we know and love has not had food at the forefront of all thought? When they both decide to quit hiding at the exact same time they inadvertently surprise each other, which makes for lots of googly eyes and laughs. There are always laughs. Dr Seuss never makes me laugh. So, if I am going to invest almost $10 in a beginning to read book for my child, I want it to make him/her and maybe even me laugh, and the Elephant & Piggie books bring the laughs by the barrel. 

Are You Ready to Play Outside? and There is a Bird on Your Head won the relatively new Theodore Geisel Award that the Amercian Library Association began giving out in 2006. This award recognizes literary and artistic achievements that demonstrate creativity and imagination to engage children in reading and is sort of the Caldecott award for beginning reader books.


Jeremy said…
Spot-on review. They're good books, no question.

My girls lost interest pretty quickly, though. If I remember right, I thought it might be because there's so little variation in the illustrations throughout each book -- if you held the book six feet away, the pictures would sort of all look the same.

I've noticed that same phenomenon in some of the board books our two-year-old has rejected. Simple rule for books written for toddlers: make sure there's something really different on the next page.
Crinklynose said…
Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. I love Mo Willems! My 9 month old loves him as well (at least the pictures in his books) :o)
Tanya said…
Maybe your girls picked up on what kind of irks me about these books, in spite of the fact that I have to acknowledge their brilliance. I definitely see how the lack of variation makes the books good for emerging readers, but... how long can you keep milking the same cow. Maybe that's why there hasn't been a new pigeon book in a while.
Jeremy said…
Perhaps you're right -- we never got into the pigeon books. I took the whole stack of Elephant and Piggie books out of the library last night and the kids were all glad to see them. Ella read them all happily this morning. So I'm thinking this was an issue with *me*.
Tanya said…
Interesting! I wonder if other adults have a similar quasi-negative response to Mo's books like you and I did. Glad the kids enjoyed them again, though.
Anonymous said…
My Year 2 students absolutely love Mo Willems' books. It doesn't matter which series or how often they are read. I do agree though that you have to do the voices and a little bit of acting when reading them aloud. Some of my students didn't like them but when I read them aloud, they loved them and then went back and read them independently.
Tanya said…
Awesome! That is so good to know! My son is in kindergarden and I just learned that his school library doesn't own any of the Elephant & Piggie books! I'll have to start donating them a few at a time. I think there are 14 now!
Jessica said…
I am a definite Mo Willems fan, due in large part to the Knuffle Bunny books, I must say.

But I quite like Elephant (Gerald) and Piggie. Their situations are funny and silly and just right for little kids (2-5). You DO have to act, though, when you read them. The characters are all about drama. I never thought of this as a negative, because I naturally do that when I read with my kids.

The best one, in my opinion, is, "I Love My New Toy!" There, you go through all the complicated feelings they experience when Piggie shares her new toy and then Gerald accidentally breaks it. ("I am mad! And sad. I am mad and sad!") And then the additional complicated feelings when it turns out it wasn't broken, and they had gone through all that anger/sadness/guilt for no reason. It is very real and it is very funny. Both my kids love it and circle back to it.

I could never get into the pigeon books, but my kids liked them when they were little. My son always said it was fine if the pigeon drove the bus. :-)
Tanya said…
I think Mo is definitely at his best when he is writing Elephant & Piggie... I wasn't too impressed with his two newest books, Goldilocks and the 3 Dinosaurs and This Is Not a Good Idea. I do miss working at the bookstore and doing story time and having a reason (and audience) to read E & P out loud and in full form!

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