Why Elephant and Piggie make me laugh

From  Are You Ready to Play Outside?  © 2009 by Mo Willems

From Are You Ready to Play Outside? © 2009 by Mo Willems

When he was 5, Mr. Willems explains, he wrote a letter to [Charles M.] Schulz saying, “Dear Mr. Schulz, can I have your job when you are dead?”
— Mo Willems and the Art of the Children’s Book

Let me share with you what I consider to be one of the greatest double acts in children’s books - ever! A big claim I know, but they are up there with the greats.

Abbot and Costello. Laurel and Hardy. Morecambe and Wise. Bert and Ernie.

I discovered them when Noah was about five. 

Introducing - Elephant and Piggie by Mo Willems.

Described in The New York Times as an ‘emotive comedy duo’, they are indeed a delight to read. “…Elephant is Elephant Gerald,” explains Willams. “He’s named after my favorite singer. And Piggie, her name is Piggie.”


With deceptive simplicity, Mo Willems conveys an enormous range of emotions, creating exaggerated expressions (think Looney Tunes) that speak volumes and lend the books a fabulous, cartoon feel. They read like animation storyboards, with drawing after drawing of sequential images - often wordless (reminding me of the slapstick of silent movies). Who needs words to describe feelings with visuals like these? His target audience is left in no doubt.


When Willems does use words to tell the story, it’s presented as dialogue within speech bubbles. That, combined with a pared-down drawing style and clever pacing through page turns, evoke Willems’s most significant influence - the comic strip, Peanuts:

Willems’s simplicity of line and the frustrations that his characters experience contain emotional echoes of the Peanuts cartoons of Charles M. Schulz, whose work has most inspired Willems’s along with that of Saul Steinberg.

- The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature


No wonder they hit the spot with the boys and me - we all love Snoopy. (I’m also rather partial to Steinberg - whose work I was introduced to at art college.)

Snoopy - Charles M. Schulz © 1990 by United Features Syndicate, Inc.

Snoopy - Charles M. Schulz © 1990 by United Features Syndicate, Inc.

Drawing on Smithsonian Institution stationery © 1967 by The Saul Steinberg Foundation

Drawing on Smithsonian Institution stationery © 1967 by The Saul Steinberg Foundation




The titles of the Elephant and Piggie books (25 in total) sum up the simple stories within:

I Love My New Toy! 

Are You Ready To Play Outside? 

My Friend Is Sad

Today I Will Fly!

And my personal favourite - There Is A Bird On Your Head! (Always a fun book to read aloud when the kids were small!)

From  There Is a Bird on Your Head!  © 2007 by Mo Willems

From There Is a Bird on Your Head! © 2007 by Mo Willems


Bird opens with the two friends sat peacefully, back to back.

Suddenly, Elephant Gerald’s eyes pop open! He feels something land on his head. “Is something on my head?” he asks nervously. “Yes,” replies Piggie. “There is a bird on your head.” “There is a bird on my head?” Elephant Gerald freaks: “Aaaaaaaaaggghhh!!!” (The bird, of course, flies away.) Gerald needs reassurance: “Is there a bird on my head now?” he asks. “No,” observes Piggie. (The bird returns - with a friend.) “Now there are two birds on your head.” To Piggie’s delight, the birds are in love - and proceed to build a nest on top of Gerald’s head. Slowly, it dawns on Gerald what they might be doing: “I am afraid to ask… Do I have an egg on my head?” He raises Piggie aloft to check on the egg situation.

From  There Is a Bird on Your Head!  © 2007 by Mo Willems

From There Is a Bird on Your Head! © 2007 by Mo Willems


“Three!” she announces excitedly. Gerald is despairing. “I do not want three eggs on my head!” he says. Piggie has good news - “The eggs are hatching!” “HATCHING? The eggs on my head are hatching?”

I still chuckle as Elephant Gerald goes through an entire range of emotions: from bliss to alarm (“Piggie!”), shock to fear; panic to relief; disbelief to annoyance (“What are two birds doing on my head?”) … until finally his problem is resolved, and Gerald is happy once more (the final visual joke being on Piggie).

From  There Is a Bird on Your Head!  © 2007 by Mo Willems

From There Is a Bird on Your Head! © 2007 by Mo Willems



Behind the humour of Mo Willems’ Elephant and Piggie books, lurks an often unspoken reality: friendships are complicated.

Despite this, ‘Gerald and Piggie are best friends.’

For all of us (perhaps kids more so) friendships can be flawed. While many picture books skirt around the potential pitfalls, Willems throws us in at the deep end. Here he explains why:

Go, Dog, Go … is my favorite book but it has a huge flaw. …there is no emotional life. When the Poodle says, “Do you like my hat?” the Hound says, “No.” The Poodle comes back, “Do you like my hat?” Hound says, “No.” Poodle comes back, “Do you like my hat?” The Hound says no. Even as a 7-year-old, I remember saying, “If I were the Poodle, I’d say, ‘Well, screw you! I’ve worn three hats! Do you know how expensive they are? Do you know how much time I spent on them? You know, these hats don’t just grow on trees! You can’t just blow me off and walk away.’” And to me, that’s what the Elephant and Piggie books are. It’s, “Do you like my hat?” “No.” “Screw you.” They’re friends and they damage their friendship in some way, and then they have to find a way to undamage it.

- Elephant and Piggie’s Mo Willems talks

From  I Love My New Toy!  © 2008 by Mo Willems

From I Love My New Toy! © 2008 by Mo Willems

That’s the added benefit of sharing Elephant and Piggie with your kids - without them realising it, you’re teaching them to empathise. ‘Kids can sniff out a lesson in a book a mile away and chances are it will feel pretty patronizing,’ warns Nathan Bransford. ‘Don’t do it.’ So while they think you’re just reading a funny book about two friends, you are actually setting them up for life - and helping to shape everyone’s future:


 
As we read about the minds, experiences, and feelings of another, we feel with them. This increases our ability to understand others’ minds and internal experiences so that we can better empathize with them. The more children practice this skill, the more their brains get wired with this capacity.

- How Reading with Your Children Can Help Them Develop a ‘Yes Brain’

So do yourself a favour and get your hands on a copy of Elephant and Piggie. Because getting to read funny books with your kids while teaching them some essential life lessons is a win-win situation! They get a great start to their reading journey - and you might find a long-lost funny bone.


Good to Read

Other comic double acts that make me laugh

  • Charlie and Lola - various titles by Lauren Child (Orchard Books)

  • Mabel and Me - Best of Friends by Mark Sperring, ill. by Sarah Warburton (HarperCollins 2013)

  • The Bear and Mouse books by Bonny Becker, ill. by Kady Macdonald Denton (Walker Books)

  • Pooh and Piglet in Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner by A.A. Milne, ill. by E.H. Shepherd

  • Chalk & Cheese by Tim Warnes (Simon & Schuster 2008)


Sources

Opening Quote: Mo Willems and the Art of the Children’s Book (The New York Times, 18 March 2016)

Are You Ready to Play Outside? by Mo Willems (Hyperion Books For Children 2009)

There Is a Bird On My Head! by Mo Willems (Hyperion Books for Children 2007)

I Love My New Toy! by Mo Willems (Hyperion Books For Children 2008)

My Friend Is Sad by Mo Willems (Hyperion Books for Children 2007)

I Will Surprise My Friend! by Mo Willems (Hyperion Books for Children 2008)

ELEPHANT AND PIGGIES’ MO WILLEMS TALKS (ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY, 27 OCTOBER 2011)

The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature by Daniel Hahn (Oxford University Press second edition, 2015)

The Saul Steinberg Foundation

5 Tips for writing for children by Nathan Bransford

How Reading with Your Children Can Help Them Develop a ‘Yes Brain’ - Brightly