My Good Pal Mo (I Like to Pretend We’re On a First Name Basis)

November 10, 2012 § 1 Comment

No one gets straight to the heart of kids like Mo Willems. It seems almost criminal that I’ve been at this blog for several months now and have yet to sing the praises of one of the most original author-illustrators of all time. While he’s best known for the Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus series (which, despite its popularity, is not my or my children’s favorite), Mo is at his best with one-off masterpieces, like Edwina, the Dinosaur Who Didn’t Know She Was Extinct and Leonardo the Terrible Monster (see my complete list at the end). And now we get to add his newest creation, Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs (Ages 4-8), in which three scheming dinosaurs lure Goldilocks into the wrong fairy tale in an effort to make “chocolate-filled-little-girl-bonbons” out of her.

During the 46 times that I’ve been asked by my son to read this book in the past month, I’ve started to put my finger on what it is that unites Mo’s seemingly disparate stories. Mo gives children A LOT of credit (probably more than us parents do). He doesn’t employ traditional literary devices (in fact, in Goldilocks he actually turns them on their head), and he offers few explanations; instead, he writes with the expectation that kids will pick up on the subtlety, the irony, the little side jokes, and the sophisticated vocabulary through their repeated readings. Over the years, I’ve had more than one person ask me whether Mo’s multi-layered storytelling is accessible enough to children or simply intended to amuse the parent who’s reading it. In response, let me give you an account of how my five year old experienced Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs:

1st reading: JP chuckles at the obvious discrepancies versus the original fairy tale, like chocolate pudding in place of porridge and the three chairs that are all “too tall.” (Yes, this book does require that the child be well versed in the original Goldilocks and the Three Bears.)

2nd reading: JP begins to realize that the dinosaurs have arranged the pudding, the chairs, and the beds to look like the original fairy tale.

3rd reading: JP starts laughing at the inherent sarcasm in phrases like, “The three dinosaurs were definitely not hiding in the woods waiting for an unsuspecting kid to come by.” He’s in on the joke now.

4th-10th readings: JP points out the funny and random background details, like the teasing “Tee Hee” handwritten on the dinosaurs’ welcome mat and the black-and-white portraits of ancestral dinosaurs on the walls.

11th reading: JP asks me to read the last page again: “And the moral is: If you ever find yourself in the wrong story, leave.”

12th-20th reading: JP asks, “How can a person leave a story?” Deep philosophical conversations ensue about stories taking on a life of their own (i.e. authorship and imagination). Proud parenting moment.

21-30h readings: JP becomes obsessed with the book’s endpapers, which are covered with mock book titles typewritten and then and X’d off in red marker, his favorites being “Goldilocks and the Three Mosquitoes” and “Goldilocks and the Three Jumbo Shrimp.”

31-46th readings: JP wonders aloud about what would happen if Goldilocks happened on mosquitoes or shrimp or any number of things. Suddenly, the reader becomes the author.

When children are encouraged to make these discoveries on their own, that’s when the real seed is planted for a lifelong love of reading. Mo simply hides the clues and then waits for his readers to find and make sense of them.  And that’s master storytelling.

A genius moment where Mo baits kids into thinking they know what’s coming given their familiarity with the original fairy tale: “The first chair was too tall. The second chair was too tall. But the THIRD chair–” Here we turn the page, expecting a “just right” but instead finding a: “WAS TOO TALL. Goldilocks wasn’t going to climb that high just to sit in some chair; so she hiked over to the bedroom.”

Other Favorites by Mo Willems:
Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale (Ages 2-4)
Time to Pee (Ages 2-3)
Hooray for Amanda and Her Alligator (Ages 3-6)
Edwina, the Dinosaur Who Didn’t Know She Was Extinct (Ages 4-7)
Leonardo the Terrible Monster (Ages 4-7)
Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed (Ages 4-7)
The Elephant and Piggie books (an early reader series for ages 4-8)

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