As promised, I’m following up with Part 2 on my author spotlight of human penny-farthing Mo Willems.
I separated his easy-reader series, Elephant and Piggie out of Hyperion, from the rest of his work because though the title characters have much of Willems’s signature charm—-they’re funny and a little quirky; they’re ironic but kind; they’re simply but vibrantly drawn—-I actually believe that Elephant and Piggie represent total mastery of the entire subgenre, which all future easy-reader books should aspire to but can’t hope to match, and no I’m not exaggerating.
Easy-reader books have come a long way since I was an easy reader. And even then, they had already come a long way since my mom was one. They’re overall livelier and more interesting than they used to be. They’re purpose, however, remains pretty narrow: they’re good for a new reader to practice reading words on pages, and that’s pretty much it.
By contrast, Elephant and Piggie weave every possible kind of literacy in each story. I realize I’m being sort of weirdly breathless here, but when you start examining these books and taking apart all the little things they manage to do pedagogically, it’s hard not to make a face like this:
The books sport simple, clean sentences in large, clear font typical of easy readers to eliminate as many barriers as possible for little guys to read them. They absolutely do the same job that easy readers have been doing since Dick, Jane, and Spot. I, you, go, is, it, look, me, my, play, funny…all of these words appear on the Dolch sightwords list (if you care about that sort of thing) and all make frequent appearances in each Elephant and Piggie adventure.
Yet Willems goes a step further: the typeface itself is dynamic; the size of the font varies depending on the context of the stories, prompting a reader to use context clues to SHOUT or whisper to give the stories some impact.
Willems even makes clever use of punctuation: frequently, Elephant and Piggie will repeat after each other. But where Gerald the elephant, who tends to be neurotic, might end his sentence with a question mark of nervousness?, Piggie the pig, who is optimistic and exuberant, will end the same sentence with an exclamation point of enthusiasm!
But most impressive of all is how Elephant and Piggie books even promote literacy when there are no words on the page whatsoever: Willems uses the every-line-counts nature of his cartoon-style drawings to help early readers make meaning of facial expressions. Sometimes, the drawings show a contrast between a character’s words and what they mean:
Sometimes, their expressions allow the characters to communicate their thoughts nonverbally:
And other times, their faces just indicate their relationship to one another:
Language is more than just putting words together according to a formula—-there are countless paratextual details that impact how we use and understand words. It’s rarely what we say, but how we say it, and what face we’re making while we say it, that holds meaning. Elephant and Piggie brilliantly brings out and itemizes all of the various nuances of literacy specifically for early readers to practice. In fact, these also make spectacular read-alouds to preschoolers and toddlers, too: read them the words, but let them put the words together with the expressions.
It almost seems obvious: how is it that every easy reader isn’t written this way?
But the very most special thing about Gerald and Piggie and their books, which gives all of this literacy-learning purpose, is the main characters’ friendship. All of these words, with all of these different expressions, facilitate Gerald and Piggie’s ability to care for and have fun with each other. Words, and the expressions that go with them, are the carriers of humor, compassion, and, okay, sometimes jealousy or nervousness, but ultimately—-hopefully—-kindness.
More than demonstrating how to use words and decipher the many codes they comprise, at the heart of Elephant and Piggie is why words and the stories they make are important in the first place. And that’s what Mo Willems’s books do better than anybody else’s.