Jun 18, 2016

Little Books with Big Ideas: What We Can Learn from Pigeon

The magnitude of recent tragedies reminded me that picture books, sometimes the smallest, can have really big ideas. Those ideas often make more sense than those of all the pundits and scholars and religious leaders put together. 
At least it seems that way to me. 

Here's an example I often use, and it feels more relevant and "bigger" now than ever before:
Hyperion Books, 2003

words and pictures by 
Since Pigeon's debut to the world of books in 2003 he's become a potent figure in the minds and hearts of kids and adults alike. His titles number at a dozen or more, in multiple languages, with his own interactive website and plush toys. Few kid-lit characters have reached such a level of popularity, and I don't begrudge him his success.

I'm writing this post to address the power this little bird has to offer high level wisdom for anyone of any age. He's such a confident little fellow that I'm counting on him to shoulder a symbolic role for all the other picture book characters with wisdom to offer. 

 I had the privilege of hearing Mo Willems speak about Pigeon shortly after it had been awarded the Caldecott Honor. Among his many engaging and entertaining remarks, Willems reported that some glowing reviews drew contradictory conclusions about what Pigeon was "teaching" kids. I'll paraphrase here: 

One reviewer praised the book because kids need to hear the message: NO MEANS NO.  Another's praise included this: Kids need to hear DON'T TAKE NO FOR AN ANSWER.
Pictures: Mo Willems
When the laughter subsided, Willems remarked that interviewers seemed eager to ask him which message was "right". His reply (again, paraphrasing) was a shoulder shrug. This was followed by a general comment that his purpose was to entertain, and it was in the hands and hearts of the readers to decide what any message might be. 

Pictures: Mo Willems:

When tragic events unfold, whether on our screens or in our neighborhoods, our world seems to have gone mad. It takes only a glance around us to connect extreme actions in the news with issues like impulse-control, resistance to regulation, and demands for "we-want-what-we-want-when-we-want-it". 
Pigeon is an example of these patterns and uses every ploy to achieve his dream. The page image on the right only scratches the surface of his tactics. In fact, his tantrum page is a favorite among initial and repeat readers, including me.

Pictures by Mo Willems:
This tantrum page is best delivered in full voice while channeling every rant you've ever delivered or witnessed: 


In his initial book, and in subsequent titles, Pigeon's personality is unmistakable. Even so, defining that personality generates a debate as lively as the reviewers' "message" statements reveal. 

One one hand: Pigeon is a spoiled, demanding, defiant, stubborn character. He disrupts and disturbs the peace a reader should reasonably expect in a book.
On the other hand: Pigeon is a dreamer, out-of-the-box, an innovator, persistent, with a generous dollop of grit and he energizes the book and the reader.

Can we agree that both descriptions fit? In fact,  the descriptors from one point of view might well appear in thesaurous entries as synonyms for descriptors from the opposite position. The difference is connotation or value judgements.

Let me take a moment to add third view of Pigeon. He's a cunning, observant, creative, problem-solving bird with a dream. He's a bird who respects the rule of law and doesn't fail to seek and wait for permission. He recognizes the right of others to control their own property. He doesn't try to sneak onto the bus, distract the reader from vigilance, or lie about having permission. He is, at his core, honest and respectful of social standards, even while imaging himself in a role outside the norm. 
Even while his dream is being denied.

How many characters are in this book?

Another debate ensues when I ask this question of readers of any age.  
Should the answer be ONE? After all, Pigeon conducts the entire story other than the introductory and concluding lines by the Bus Driver.
But shouldn't the answer be TWO? After all, without those opening and closing lines, there is no problem to solve, no story for Pigeon to portray!

My additional view of the story is that there are THREE characters. Both Pigeon and Driver are essential to the story, but without the Reader playing a role-  actively upholding the Driver's directive throughout, resisting Pigeon's winsome and willful requests- there is no story. 

One could say that every book requires the reader to play a part, and yet I can easily imagine many tales lying inside a closed book like actors in a play, prepared to pop out and reveal the story in its entirety whether the reader is attentive or not. Just picture a video playing in an empty room. The entire story unfolds even without an audience.

In the case of Pigeon and the Driver, though, the Reader's unscripted role is a debate in itself: Was the Driver's trust well-placed? And, if not, if the Reader dares to say "YES" instead of "NO", the story ends. 

Circling back, now, to my introductory reference to tragic events. You may note that I didn't link or label the one closest to the date of this post. I began with that step, but removed it. I am sadly realistic enough to predict that other tragic, traumatic events will continue to occur and we'll need to continue to find ways to make sense of the world's horrors for young readers. The links and reflections here may continue to be useful if that happens.

Books can serve to develop empathy and care-taking, as are the examples in a post by fourth-grade teacher Laura Weakland for Nerdy Book Club Blog (Here).  Then there's this post from A YEAR OF READING. It dates back to 2014 and yet its featured picture book titles continue to be excellent resources for exploring topics of fairness and justice. I share both these posts and encourage you to search for others because kids (in homes, classrooms, libraries) need to have many opportunities to explore books on big topics, to engage fully as readers rather than as bystanders, and to recognize that open and peaceful debates allow us to become a stronger community rather than a divided one. 

In this election year more than any before.

A ranting adherence to black/white, right/wrong, good/evil beliefs is often at the heart of tragic news events. Our superhero culture may leave kids feeling that without superpowers they have no ability to affect their world. Books like these encourage them to see that each individual, as a thinker, a dreamer, and a member of a community, has a voice but also an obligation to listen respectfully, honestly. Talking about big ideas in little books provides valuable practice in growing safer citizens for the future.
Pigeon's ultimate respect for his place in society, even when that affects his dreams, is a good place to begin.
I hope even Pigeon would agree with that. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Picture books are as versatile and diverse as the readers who enjoy them. Join me to explore the wacky, wonderful, challenging and changing world of picture books.