Seven Impossible Tri-Reviews Before Breakfast #4: Featuring MotherReader, Elephant, and Piggie

h1 December 7th, 2007 by Eisha and Jules

Our apologies to Poetry Friday, which we love and adore, but we started this tri-review in mid-August. O yes, we did. It’s taken us this long. No more delays then. Here is 7-Imp’s absolutely riveting current tri-review. Go get your popcorn now, and come back, read, and enjoy.

Jules: Mo Willems, picture book creator extraordinaire, has graced the world of children’s lit with a new beginning reader series, the Elephant & Piggie books. And heaven bless him, because they are very funny and clever and . . . Wait. I’m getting ahead of myself here. Let’s just say they’re All Mo All the Time -– each and every book.

If you missed the first two -– My Friend is Sad and Today I Will Fly!, both released in April of this year by Hyperion -– then, run! Don’t walk! Run to the nearest bookstore or library, especially if you have those so-called emerging readers in your home, because the books -– met with rave reviews all-around -– are . . . well, as Booklist put it, they are “{a}ccessible, appealing, and full of authentic emotions about what makes friendships tick . . . {they} will put a contemporary shine on easy-reader collections and give Willems’ many fans–whatever their age or reading level–two more characters to love.” In July of this year, the following two books in the series, I Am Invited to a Party! and There Is a Bird on Your Head!, were released (also by Hyperion, whom we thank for review copies of these titles).

And how can we discuss Mo’s new beginning reader series without, arguably, the biggest Mo fan in the kidlitosphere, Pam Coughlan, a.k.a. MotherReader? So, we invited her to a tri-review of these titles and are thrilled she said yes.

MoReader, we are happy to have you here! I could go on and on about why I think these books work so well, but I’m sure we’ll all get into that. I’ll add quickly now before letting you really begin here that the very first time I read one of these, my three-year-old daughter was with me. We had picked up My Friend is Sad at the library and were really excited, as we’d been waiting for it. We sat down right there at the nearest table and took a gander, and we immediately were doing those nerdy hyperventilating laughs -– in a library, no less -– because it was almost painfully funny. So, we just packed up to take them home where we could laugh louder. I think that one’s my favorite, since the slapstick genius of all the Elephant & Piggie titles is at its best in that book, in my humble opinion.

What do you think? As a Hugely Huge Mo Fan, are you just crazy about them? Disappointed, by chance? Are they all you thought they’d be?

MotherReader: Oh, extremely disappointed. What a hack he’s turned out to be.

Gotcha!!! Of course, I’m kidding. These books are brilliant, which comes as no surprise to me. What I love about Mo is his adherence to (what I like to call) The Sesame Street Principle: Entertain the parents, and they’ll share the experience with their kids. This principle applies whether you’re watching TV, going to a movie (Hello, Pixar!) or reading a book. Give the parents a little something for their trouble, and they’ll stick around. Mo gets it with regard to picture books, and now he’s applying his trademark humor to beginning readers. And honestly, never has a place in kids’ lit needed more zazz than these early readers.

The beginning reading stage is obviously a parent/child partnership, but speaking from experience, it can be a tedious process. I mean, you finish a well-written, beautifully illustrated picture book, and then you struggle to care about a boring story while gritting your teeth as your child sounds out the word “today” for the third time in five minutes. Well, Mo is here to bring back the fun with his engaging and hilarious Elephant & Piggie books.

Eisha: Word, MotherReader. WORD. And Mo totally delivers. These books are simply written, and perfectly paced for the beginning reader, with a lot of repetition and a slow build to a ba-dum-ching! ending. But the humor, while slapstick and kid-friendly, definitely has a sophisticated edge -– for example, Piggie’s mumbled aside to the reader “He had better know parties…” in my personal favorite of the four, I Am Invited to a Party! And the illustrations are elegant, simple perfection: his signature retro-pastel palette, but with a softer edge than, say, the Pigeon books. And the amount of expression he is able to convey with a stroke of that pencil of his just blows my mind.

So, Jules, you mentioned sharing giggle-fits with your daughter over My Friend is Sad. How did the other titles go over?

Jules: They love them all with the burning intensity of 8,000 suns. No kidding. The slapstick, pratfall humor in them now has my three-and-a-half-year old wanting to get up and act them out each time: She’ll be Elephant. I’ll be Piggie. Scene. Then, I’m Elephant. She’s Piggie. Scene. And cut. Etc.

I also think they’ve gone far in helping her read and recognize words. Sure, sometimes we’ll stop and sound out some of the words, but I think her blinding and devoted love to them has resulted in a memorization of the text, which I would guess also takes her far in learning to read. Am I right, MotherReader, since you’ve watched your girls learn to read? I mean, I dunno. I’ve never taught reading, but I would think once she’s memorized a text and can recognize its words on the pages, she’s already taken that first step in reading, given that readers don’t sound out words every time they read. Instead, we recognize most of them and then sound out the ones we’ve never seen before. So, that’s all thanks to Mo for creating books with great characters and lots of humor that have her so interested that she can quote each page -– and that I truly think have her, even at just three-and-a-half, recognizing some words.

Did you all see this by Gregory Cowles in The New York Times Sunday Book Review section in September (log-in is required, but it’s free)? I found it when we did our Mo interview:

{I Am Invited to a Party! is} a cute concept, and an impressively economical one, managing in the space of a joke to tap into children’s social anxieties, dress-up fetishes and love of parties — all with a simple, repeated vocabulary of about 50 words that makes it effective for beginning readers.

But it’s still just a joke. I have a similar complaint about the other new Elephant & Piggie book, which also relies on a visual punch line and is pretty much summed up by its title: “There Is a Bird on Your Head!” These are cheerful, charming little stories, and Willems is a genuinely funny guy, but in the early going this series lacks the depth of its peer group — the fablelike whimsy of Arnold Lobel’s “Frog and Toad” books, the wry complexity of Russell Hoban’s “Frances” stories. One of the lessons of The Cat in the Hat’s total world domination was that character counts, and in his earlier books Willems proved he had absorbed that lesson. But it says something about the Elephant & Piggie books, I think, that what my son most looks forward to in them is trying to find the Pigeon hidden in the endpapers.

Harsh. And he used the word “cute.” There is a Bird on Your Head! is my least favorite one (though I still lurv it), but I have to disagree with the notion that character doesn’t count in these titles. I find My Friend is Sad to be actually quite touching. Know what I mean? Elephant and Piggie are tiiiight, y’all, and I think it’s clear in all the titles. There’s a deep friendship that’s never too heavy-handed.

What do you all think of that?

MotherReader: I think I remember why I dislike “professional” reviewers. See, the problem with that review is that it’s comparing apples to oranges, while being so very superior about them both being fruit. Are the Lobel, Hoban, and Seuss stories more developed? Certainly, because they use more words. There is a Bird on Your Head! uses only sixty-seven different words. Many of them are repeated, which is necessary for children to begin to recognize words — as you noticed, Jules, with your daughter. The magic of the Elephant & Piggie series is that they are engaging books for the earliest readers and that they can keep the parents interested as well. If this reviewer wants to play the comparison game, then he can look at Aliki’s My Hands or Seuss’s The Foot Book. Otherwise, it’s like saying Knuffle Bunny isn’t as good at The Book Thief because it doesn’t fully explore the emotional depth of loss.

I also suspect that the reviewer isn’t aware of the different and important aspects of the first beginning readers. 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 fly off and get a sticks, the child can predict that they will build a nest. You know what? I’ve just decided that There is a Bird on Your Head! is my favorite of the books. Take that, New York Times.

Okay, we haven’t mentioned Today I Will Fly, where I found Gerald a little cranky. Funny, but cranky. So. Eisha, I ask you, did you get a different feel for the characters from book to book?

Eisha: Yes, I think so -– I think the generally consistent behavior they exhibit toward each other helps develop their individual characters throughout the series. Gerald is usually the somber, cranky know-it-all and Piggie is usually the energetic, imaginative goofy one. They balance each other nicely. And I think you’re absolutely right in your response to the NYT reviewer -– their friendship may not have the poignancy or apparent depth of Frog and Toad, but I really don’t think that was Willems’s intent. Apples and oranges, like you said. These are fun books that beginning readers will enjoy. What more do they need to be?

Here’s a fun little thought I had: In Today I Will Fly!, the relationship between Gerald and Piggie almost seemed parent-and-child at times, rather than a simple friendship. And notice how Gerald wears glasses, and Piggie kind of has the energy and effusiveness of a young child… Could this be in part inspired by Mo’s relationship with his daughter? Something to join the ranks of Knuffle Bunny as another literary tribute to his family? Or am I stretching?

MotherReader: Oh, I don’t think you’re stretching at all. I won’t claim to know Mo and his family with any authority, but I did meet them at the National Book Festival in Washington, DC . When I saw them, Mo and his wife were swinging Trixie between them. Very playful. However, when I was talking to Mo, and Trixie began to say something, he gave her the gentle wait-a-minute index finger signal. Very parental. This is just an example of the dual roles of a good father. Now, I don’t think that Mo woke up one morning and said, “I’m going to write a set of beginning readers that addresses the psychological ambivalence of today’s parents who want to provide mature guidance to better enable the growth of their offspring, and yet are eager to embrace their own inner child -– and in doing so, to embrace their actual son or daughter with a joyful and playful spirit.” (Though if I’m on the money on this analysis, I believe Mo owes me lunch.) But what is wonderful about these books is that the sparseness of the illustration leaves so much open to interpretation. A parent can find his or her own experience in the book, while a child can see something different. In interviews and presentations, Mo talks about parents being his partners, in that he can write the books, but that they need to be read and played to reach their potential. Jules, it seems like you’ve found that experience in your own role-playing reading at home.

Jules: Oh yes, my friends. Elephant and Piggie rule the house now. I love how Mo says his books should be played, and play we do. I also would like to add that Today I Can Fly! was read last week by the superstar rockstar story-time folks at the Nashville Public Library (Mary-Mary read one part, while Cedric the Dragon read another), and it was a hit. Now, how often are beginning reader titles chosen to be read at story times? Not often. That’s just how well the Elephant & Piggie books work and entertain as stories.

Well, this was fun, especially since this is our first co- or tri-review of beginning reader titles. Thanks, MotherReader, for joining us. I’m sure I speak for all of us when I say we’re looking forward to future Elephant & Piggie titles.

And scene.

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9 comments to “Seven Impossible Tri-Reviews Before Breakfast #4: Featuring MotherReader, Elephant, and Piggie”

  1. Love how it all came together – eventually! I might have to put this in my writer’s portfolio – assuming I had one.

    Thanks for including me. It was fun!


  2. Yeah, but do you guys LIKE the books?

    Mo

    (Thanks for the kind words)


  3. This is great stuff, guys. I’ll definitely recommend / pick up these books, based on your insightful and witty analysis.


  4. I


  5. Well…what happend there? I was just writing that I (heart) these books and so do my 4 year old and 2 year old. The 2 year old runs around crying “Zip…Zap” and the 4 year old delights in the fact that she can “read” these titles. Joy!


  6. These are all on our Christmas list. I have to admit I don’t like the pigeon books though, because I don’t want to encourage that snarky kind of humor in my little guys. We have enough trouble at bedtime with just the arguments they come up with on their own. I don’t want them learning new vocabulary from that world-wise bird. That’s just me though. :) They don’t watch much TV either.


  7. Great post! I recommended these books to my sister who’s a teacher and was looking for early readers that didn’t suck for her classroom.


  8. [...] — last, but not least). Getting snail mail today from Adrienne! With Elephant & Piggie [...]


  9. [...] We will also occasionally put our heads together and do what we call co-reviews -– do a back-and-forth dialogue about our thoughts on a book. We recently started inviting other bloggers over to 7-Imp to do that with us. In August of last year, we talked about Cat Weatherill’s Snowbone with Betsy Bird in September, Gabrielle Zevin’s Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac with Jen Robinson; in October, Perry Moore’s Hero with Roger Sutton; and in December, Mo Willems’ new Elephant & Piggie beginning readers with MotherReader. [...]


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