Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! by Mo Willems

As with many picture books, the title gives away the basic point of the book: a bus driver goes on break, abjuring the unseen readers “Don’t let the pigeon drive the bus!”

Pigeon appears two ‘frames’ after the bus driver leaves, saying “I thought he’d never leave.” and proceeds to run through a gamut of pleas with the ‘audience’ to allow him to drive the bus: straightforward, promising to be careful, promising to just steer, then veering off into whines: My cousin Herb drives a bus almost every day, you never let me do anything, just once around the block and so on in a pattern familiar to most parents having to set down household rules about things like bike riding or skateboarding…

The book ends with a crestfallen pigeon left behind as the bus driver returns and drives away; does it end here? NO! the last page is of a rejuvenated pigeon calling out to what appears to be a fire truck. (We only see the front bumper and wheelwell.)

This was apparently Willems’ first picture book, though he’d had plenty of experience on Sesame Street previously; it’s good, though fans of his “Knuffle Bunny” trilogy would do well to keep in mind that those three books are very different, both in design and plotting, than the “Pigeon” series, much less the Elephant and Piggie series. Ideal for kids with squirminess, as it’s designed (I think) for the reader to pause every time the pigeon pleads to be allowed to drive the bus. More astute children will recognize the pattern of their own pleading, whether that be a later bed time, dessert, or some other activity as yet forbidden them.

For fans of this book, never fear: Willems has written a series of ‘Pigeon’ books. Formulaic? You betcha. Following the same basic format? Definitely. But then ask any toddler, and they’ll (usually) insist on “Again, again, again! More, more, more!” Multiple books just like the first in the series is a definite selling point to the target age range for Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus. If parents have grown weary of that repetitiveness, and the children demanding a “‘tory” can be convinced, there are other books which allow for audience participation, such as Jules Ffeiffer’s Bark, George and Eric Litwin’s Pete the Cat books. Or just ask your friendly children’s library staff; they’ve probably got a selection for just this problem.

Interrupting Chicken by David Ezra Stein

Wearied parents everywhere will appreciate this tale of a chicken child Who. Will. Not. Stop. Interrupting. the bedtime story ritual. As you may have guessed from the title (and the cover art), this is indeed a book about a chicken who interrupts.

Papa Chicken is putting his daughter to bed, and as so many children do, Little Chicken insists on the proper bedtime ritual, omitting nothing: in this case, weary Papa Chicken must read a bedtime story…but does it end there? Of course not! He admonishes his daughter NOT to interrupt, as she’s supposed to be calming down for bedtime so she can go to sleep. Instead, rather she (surprise, surprise) INTERRUPTS not one but three stories. The first is Hansel and Gretel, when she inserts “OUT jumped a little red chicken, and she said ‘DON’T GO IN! SHE’S A WITCH!’ So Hansel and Gretel didn’t. THE END!” Little Red Riding Hood and Chicken Little evoke similar responses, and similar apologies from the little chicken. (In fairness, I can sympathize, and I expect a good many children can as well; how many times do parents tell their children “Don’t Talk To Strangers!” and isn’t that exactly the point of Little Red Riding Hood?) In the end, the exasperated and very sleepy Papa Chicken says “Why don’t you tell a story?” Startled, the little red chicken takes him up on it…but Papa doesn’t last three sentences. Little Red Chicken kisses her bespectacled papa goodnight and crawls into bed with him.

I’d recommend it for kids who’ve outgrown simpler books such as Mo Willems’ Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus or Jules Pfeiffer’s Bark, George; books such as they are better for kids too young, too immature or too inexperienced to sit through a story with a plot, even so simple a one as Interrupting Chicken, not to mention the problem that Interrupting Chicken is a lot funnier if you have some clue how the disrupted fairy tales in the books are supposed to go…and have begun to grow weary of the same old same old over and over and over again. I think I’m right in remembering that there’s a developmental phase that many kids go through in which they find amusing stories that twist or alter the tired old chestnuts; call Interrupting Chicken an instructional manual for kids who, though they won’t be able to spell it for another couple of decades, already understand perfectly the concept of “subverting the dominant paradigm”.

What to read next? Well, there are a lot of picture books out there for kids in this phase (kids of all ages). Just ask any children’s librarian. I’d suggest starting with books like Z is for Moose by Kelly Bingham, The Three Little Pigs by David Wiesner, (or Jon Scieska’s The True Story of the Three Little Pigs) or Chloe and the Lion by Mac Barnett.

Just to name a few…I’d welcome suggestions for more.

Wonderstruck, by Brian Selznick

To begin with a disclaimer: this isn’t a sequel to The Invention of Hugo Cabret. I thought it was when I first checked it out of the library, and so began slightly disappointed, but realized this isn’t the problem it might be…especially since I haven’t much cared for many of the sequels I’ve read previously. Rather it’s two stories woven together–one in text and one illustrated–which converge gradually, both physically and literarily, until the two have combined to be told in intermingled text and illustrations, just as The Invention of Hugo Cabret was.

Ben’s story, set in 1977, begins a few months after his mother’s death. He is living with his aunt and uncle and their children, while the adults decide what to do with his mother’s estate. Still desperately missing his mother, a single parent and the only one he’s ever known, Ben sneaks off to the cabin where they’d lived until her death, where he’s struck by lightning while on the phone. Already deaf in one ear, the lightning causes Ben to lose the hearing in his good ear, and he is rushed to the hospital in Duluth. Ben flees from the hospital to New York in search of the man he believes to be his father, with only an address jotted on a bookmark for the bookstore where he thinks his father worked…and not only has the current tenant of the apartment no knowledge of Daniel, the bookstore’s long closed.

He ends up hiding out in the American Museum of Natural History, having been smuggled into a dustily unused storeroom for past exhibits by a boy his age. After several days, the friend finally (re)reveals that the bookstore is not closed but moved…

Rose, completely deaf since infancy, is in Hoboken in 1927, living with her father after her parents’ scandalous divorce–people just didn’t DO that then!–but runs away to New York when she discovers her mother is performing on stage there. Her mother is horrified and furious; Rose flees from the theater where her mother’s performing to the American Museum of Natural History. She’s about to be thrown out when one of the docents recognizes her; he is her brother, Walter, who not only takes her in but insists, when their parents find out where Rose has gone, that Rose is to stay in New York with him. He finds her a school for the deaf, where she not only (at last!) get an education both good and appropriate but also meets the boy she later marries, Bill. She and Bill have one child, Daniel, who grows up to become a curator at the AMNH; he meets Ben’s mother during the course of researching a wolf diorama…

…and it is here that the stories converge. Yes, Rose is Ben’s grandmother, wondering about whether Ben was her son’s child even as Ben was wondering about his father. The book ends before the story concludes–does Ben stay in New York or go back to Wisconsin?–but they’ve found the family they wanted. And Ben and Jamie have found a friend in one another.

I must admit that I didn’t much care for the alternation of illustrations with text in The Invention of Hugo Cabret; though the illustrations were great and furthered the storyline, I always felt a bit discombobulated when Selznick switched from one to the other. Here, it makes much more sense (at least to me) as not only does it allow Selznick to tell two stories in one while minimizing awkward disjoints when switching between the two, but (please don’t laugh), the silent illustrations made sense in the context of telling the story of someone who’s been deaf all their life. Yes, yes, I know: text doesn’t ‘talk’ either, but the illustrations absent any explanatory accompanying text somehow captured Rose’s sense of the world around herself, at least for me.

Unfortunately, I’m not quite sure what to suggest to read next, other than The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Any suggestions?

Olivia and the Fairy Princesses by Ian Falconer

Why do little girls (and some boys) love playing dress-up as pink fairy princess ballerinas? (I honestly don’t know. I seem to have missed this phase.)

In Olivia and the Fairy Princesses, Olivia’s going through something of an identity crisis, as she does NOT want to be just like every other girl (and some of the boys) her age. She does NOT want to dress up as a pink-tutu-ed fairy princess. Though, during the course of trying to get Olivia to bed, her mother points out patiently that Olivia did just that not too long ago, Olivia retorts that was when she was young. She’s now far too mature and sophisticated for tutus of any color, preferring a “ladies who lunch” outfit for a party and a particularly effective warthog costume for Halloween. Anyway, why are all the princesses pink? What about the Chinese and Thai and African and Indian princesses? What about growing up to do things like be a ‘reporter and expose corporate malfeasance’?

After finally being settled into bed, Olivia thinks about the problem and decides upon the ideal solution: she wants to be queen.

Hey, it makes sense to me. Why should we settle for being mere princesses after all? (The associated illustration makes it clear that Olivia’s thinking of something along the lines of a queen regnant, such as Queen Elizabeth.)

What to read next? Well, start with all the other “Olivia” books, but that’s self-evident. Mo Willems’ Knuffle Bunny trio is a possibility, as there he includes the parents’ exasperated reactions to Trixie’s problems. Kay Thompson’s “Eloise” books might be worth a try, though Eloise always struck me as a much more impish little troublemaker, while Olivia just has the normal energy of any preschooler. My thought was Russell Hoban’s “Frances” books; both series involve an anthropomorphic family of “animal” humans—badgers in Hoban’s case and pigs in Falconer’s—though I think Hoban’s books may have more of a plot line than Falconer’s, insomuch as picture books ever do have a plot. Frances envies her friend’s china tea set, tries to avoid going to bed, experiments with foods previously thought yucky, and so on, while both Eloise and Olivia swan through a given day in something closer to a stream-of-consciousness narrative.

I Want My Hat Back, by Jon Klassen

Bear wants his hat back, and questions the various animals he meets along the way as to whether they’ve seen his red, pointy hat. (Keep an eye on the illustrations.) He asks a fox, a frog, a rabbit wearing headgear, a turtle trying to climb a rock, a snake in a tree, and a something or other1, before collapsing in a woebegone heap to wonder if he’ll ever find it again.

…before a sympathetic deer asks him a question that prods him into realizing that he has seen his hat! Bear sprints past the bemused creatures whom he’s met before to confront…the rabbit! The book ends with a squirrel asking the bear, now sitting amid a scatter of crushed branches, whether the bear’s seen a rabbit wearing a hat. The bear says, echoing the rabbit, “No. Why are you asking me. I haven’t seen him I haven’t seen any rabbits anywhere. I would not eat a rabbit. Don’t ask me any more questions.”

No deep morals here, but on the other hand no sentimentality: it’s a bear in search of the hat he’s lost. It’s just fun to read, and to guess what the animals are in the illustrations. The bear’s response to the rabbit’s deed may be upsetting to sensitive kids, and I can see sensitive parents trying to explain to kids just what’s happened to the rabbit. Sensible kids will probably realize that this is made-up; how many talking bears and hat-wearing rabbits have you seen recently? and besides, bears do eat rabbits.

Overall, if the kids are capable of realizing that Beatrix Potter’s stuff isn’t real either, then they’ll be just fine with this. The illustrations are fairly simple, almost cartoon-like, and bear a passing resemblance to Eric Carle’s books.

1I can’t tell what it is from the illustration; does anybody out there know what it is?

Pete the Cat by Eric Litwin

These four seriously groooovvvyy picture books are about an extremely cool Jazz Cat named Pete. And his shoes.

As with many kids books, these are simple to describe though thankfully not saccharine:
     a) in I Love My White Shoes, Pete goes for a stroll during which he steps in strawberries, blueberries, mud and a bucket of water, which turn his shoes–you guess the colors and sing along!
     b) in Rocking in my School Shoes, it’s Pete’s first day of school, during which he goes to class, reads in the library, eats in the lunchroom and plays out in the playground, then goes to tell his mother all about it when she meets him at the bus stop.
     c) Pete the Cat and his Four Groovy Buttons isn’t about the buttons exactly, but rather losing them, one by one, and counting down to zero…or has he lost ALL his buttons? Nope. There’s one left; guess what it is? All the buttons are are groovy though, to be sure.
     d) in Pete the Cat Saves Christmas….well, you can guess. Yes, Pete saves Christmas to the general meter of “Twas the Night Before Christmas”, except with a jive rhythm.

The illustrations are reminiscent of Eric Carle in their angularity, but frankly Brown Bear and the Very Hungry Caterpillar were never this cool. Ask me again in ten years how popular these still are amongst the story-reading or -listening set, but for now, they’re justifiably popular. They’re bouncy, they’re colorful, they permit audience participation and a chance to work off antsiness by dancing along. There’s even a multimedia campaign over at HarperCollins: Pete The Cat For now, and it is to be hoped for some time to come, they’re great activity books to teach things like colors, basic math skills, what school’s like, and so on.

I would disagree somewhat with Kirkus; it’s actually pretty easy to figure out what the tunes are—I got close without even realizing that the author himself had included audio versions of the songs in the web site promoting these books.

Chalk, by Bill Thomson

Three friends on a rainy day walk through the park toward the playground. A little too grown now for the bouncy “rocking horses” of the cartoonish figures on springs–the children look to be about eight years old–yet still a mysterious bag hanging from the jaw of a plump dinosaur catches their eye.

What else would they do but look inside? The bag is full of chalk, those colorful fat sticks that kids use to scribble on sidewalks.

One girl pulls out a piece of yellow chalk and draws the sun; moments later, the clouds part and the bright sun comes out! The second girl pulls out an orange bit of chalk, and draws monarch butterflies, which extract themselves from the pavement and flutter dizzily around the children up into the sky. The boy pulls out green chalk and (perhaps not surprisingly) draws a many-clawed, jagged-toothed dinosaur, which (surprise, surprise) wrests itself from the pavement and comes after the terrified children.

I’m not up enough on my dinosaurs to know whether this is a tyrannosaur or a raptor (perhaps some little Dinosaur Train fan will enlighten me) but it’s fast, it’s hungry for Tender Child, and it’s got more teeth than the wolf in Red Riding Hood. The children scream and flee, reaching the jungle gym inches ahead of the dinosaur, and crawl into the tunnel slide. The dinosaur peeks up, peeks in and stomps about furiously waiting for them to emerge. What to do? Fortunately, the boy has kept hold of his chalk, and draws…can you guess?

RAINCLOUDS!

The clouds roll back, and the dinosaur peers up at the falling drops in confusion as it washes away as the painting from which it sprang dissolves into a pastel smudge on the pavement. The children gingerly hang the bag of chalk back on the dinosaur’s jaw and walk away, though not without a speculative glance back.

It reminded me of Chris van Allsburg’s work, Jumanji in particular, though David Wiesner’s wordless books might also be fun to read next if you liked Chalk. The details in the pictures is impressive–creasing in the raincoat, ripples radiating and overlapping as the rain falls in puddles, braids in the African-American girl’s hair and the dinosaur’s dentition–but then that’s not unexpected in a wordless book! Or at least I hope not. It was a nice touch that there was one African-American, one Asian and one white kid. Best of all, from the adult perspective, there’s an obvious activity tie-in.

Gathering Books