I have always loved Mo Willems. Every time we've read one of his books - whether at home with Frances and Gloria, or at storytime when I worked at the library - I came away with some new tidbit he had tucked away in an illustration or newfound respect for the way Willems interacts with his audience. But when Willems won his first Geisel Award for There is a Bird on Your Head! in 2008, I hadn't read the Elephant & Piggie series. I thought "Good for him!", but didn't take it any farther. Even after a co-worker who is a regular reader of my blog told me this series was genius, and how much her daughter loved it (Hi, Sofia!), I still didn't make an effort.
But I'm here today to tell you how much I love the Elephant & Piggie series, and how revolutionary these readers are, just in case you've been skipping over them like I did, thinking "Oh, they're just readers - I know what readers are." No, you really don't. Let's talk about Willems' latest Geisel Honor winning book We Are in a Book!
To give you a little background, Elephant (whose name is Gerald) and Piggie (whose name is just Piggie) are friends. Best friends. They do everything together. Elephant wears glasses, Piggie does not. On the very first page, Elephant and Piggie are sitting down, back to back. Piggie says "Thank you" and closes his eyes. As Piggie closes his eyes, Gerald opens his and hisses to Piggie that someone is watching them! Piggie gets up to examine the intruders and tells Elephant that there are indeed people watching them, and those people are called READERS. Then Willems begins an intricate dance between characters and the reader. Piggie first declares that he'll make the reader say "a word". That particular word, when said by the reader, throws Elephant into pages of infectious, hysterical laughter. But then the friends begin to panic when they realize they are drawing near the end of the story. So they beg the reader to start the book again. Remember Piggie's thank you at the beginning? It's a delightful circle - the kind that all kids enjoy following again, and again, and again...at least in my house.
Part of Willems' creativity in this series of books is in the emotions of the friends and how those are expressed on the page. When Elephant is laughing hysterically, his hee's and ha's grow bigger and multiply until the page full of laughs makes the reader helpless - they have to laugh along. Emotions are clear on Elephant and Piggie's faces, giving needed context to beginning readers. Yelling is done in a large font, whispers in italics...these books ask to be read aloud by an expressive reader.
One of the fascinating things about this particular book in the series is how Willems experiments with perspective. On the title page, Elephant's proclamation "We Are in a Book!" is the title and Elephant himself is so large he blocks out Willems' name. As Elephant and Piggie interact with the reader, they move up close and then draw back into middle ground, bringing the reader in with them. Piggie also hangs off some word balloons, turning our traditional sense of a picture book on its ear. However, the backgrounds are uncluttered and the drawings simple, to help focus readers on what is important - the words.
There are very few words on each page, and what's there is solely dialogue. Another genius idea of Willems' was to color coordinate the word bubbles with the friend who is speaking. Elephant's word bubbles are grey; Piggie's are pink. Beginning readers can grasp plot movement very quickly when using the words in the word bubbles along with that character's actions and facial expressions (Side note - these books not only make terrific read-alouds, but would be fun plays, too!).
While I'm spending a lot of time talking about beginner readers (after all, these are the awards Willems has won three times!), I don't want those of you with preschoolers to just ignore this series. One of the best things about this series for my girls (3 1/2 and 2) is that they can "read" the books themselves. The combination of facial expressions, movement and limited word choice makes it easy for them to retell the stories over and over again, and that, my friends, is an important step on the road to literacy.
I can't say enough what great books these are. Elephant and Piggie's personalities bring to life what can be seen as a chore (learning to read). It's hard work writing a beginning reader with a controlled vocabulary, and there's a good reason Willems keeps winning the award named after the greatest beginning reader author of all - Dr. Seuss. The books have sparkle and wit. Have I told you yet how fun they are to read aloud? Go get them!!!
Willems, Mo. We Are in a Book! (Elephant & Piggie) Hyperion, 2010.
Borrowed from Lewis & Clark Library