The Pigeon Wants A Puppy by Mo Willems

pigeon wants a puppy cover

The Pigeon Wants A Puppy by Mo Willems is one of my daughter’s favourite books. The Pigeon books are similar to the Elephant and Piggie books in graphic design and in humour.

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE PIGEON WANTS A PUPPY

WEAKNESS/NEED/PROBLEM

When I read this quote from the author/illustrator I knew that Willems thinks of story in the same way I do:

I don’t know if I can explain him — I can describe him. Pigeon has wants and needs and desires, and he has very few filters. He wants what he wants, he thinks he needs what he needs. He is railing at the injustice of it all. And the irony is that the kids who are usually suffering the injustice of it all, the kids who are being told when to go to bed, or what to do, or to eat, or how to eat, or how to dress — the second they get to stick it to the pigeon, they do.

I try to think that the Pigeon is a core, fundamental, philosophical being. He is asking the fundamental, deep questions: What is love? Why are things the way they are? Why can’t I get what I want? Why can’t I drive a bus? I mean, you know, Sophocles.

Mo Willems, NPR

DESIRE

The desire is right there in the title. Perhaps not much more needs saying.

Oh, except note how masterfully Willems has connected Desire to Weakness. This is always the best form of Desire in a story, returning the best results: Pigeon desires a puppy because he fails to do his research and understand consequences. He acts on his whims.

Note also: Willems is really ramming home the Desire line. There’s much humour in this because of pigeon’s complete lack of self-awareness. Of course he hasn’t wanted a puppy ‘for ages’. He’s decided right then and there. (If we didn’t already suspect that, we learn it by the end.)

By the way, the image on the colophon page perfectly illustrates how Willems may have brainstormed this series. We see list unwinding, headed “Things I Want”:

  1. Drive a bus!
  2. Eat a hot dog all by myself!
  3. Stay up late!
  4. Real estate!
  5. A big, red truck!
  6. Turtleneck sweaters!
  7. A driver’s license!

This list encapsulates pigeon’s whimsical  desires at the centre of other books in the series — a comedic mixture of childlike (big, red truck) and mature (real estate).

OPPONENT

The main opposition is the puppy, who stands in direct opposition to Pigeon’s desire because she doesn’t live up to Pigeon’s idealised conception of what a puppy would be.

In this way, the Opponent of The Pigeon Wants A Puppy is similar to the opponent in a crime story because the audience doesn’t see the villain until the big reveal near the end. There’s no crime here, of course. But the storytelling problem is the same: The storyteller must really build up the opposition

  1. to create payoff at the end
  2. to give the main part of the story its narrative drive

What crime writers do: Create other opponents along the way, much like mythic structure. Opponents apart from the main one, that is. (Family, colleagues, uncooperative politicians who won’t hand over the information you need etc.)

How has Willems created extra opposition, apart from the unseen ironic ‘villain’ of the puppy? Yep, he makes THE READER part of the pigeon’s web of opposition. It’s masterful. Willems achieves this by using the narrative technique of direct address.

PLAN

Pigeon has a Plan which demonstrates to the reader, in audience superior position, that Pigeon has NO idea what a puppy even is. Pigeon plans to:

  1. water it once a month
  2. go for piggyback rides on its back
  3. play tennis with it

Notice how Willems made use of the Rule of Three — three specific things Pigeon plans to do with a new puppy.

BATTLE

In picture books the Battle tends to comprise a large proportion of the total story. It tends to be a Battle Sequence.

Picture book author Katrina Moore thinks of picture book structure like this:

  • Set up (how much Pigeon wants the puppy and how he is wrong about puppies)
  • Escalation (Woof! What’s that? Woof! Woof!)
  • Climax/Low Point (Pigeon gets scared half to death by a massive puppy head coming onto the page — by the way, notice how Pigeon is now facing backwards, opposite to the turn of the page? He has had a shock — this is common picture book convention.)
  • Resolution (what I’d call the Self-revelation, though this may be a better word for it, since so often there is no Self-revelation)
  • Wink (the reader knows this exact scenario will play out twice)

(For more on the Battle sequence and the forms it tends to take in picture books, see my post on Battles in Storytelling.)

SELF-REVELATION

“Really, I had no idea!”

The comedic thing about this particular Self-revelation: Pigeon is unable to generalise learning to new situations. He (or she) learns that PUPPIES are not as expected but fails to learn that maybe WALRUSES won’t be, either.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

I recently read We Learn Nothing — essays by Tim Kreider and I believe it’s more common we learn nothing than learn something, in fact. No life lesson is learned. Just a very specific one. In this respect, Pigeon is identical to Aaron Blabey’s Pig The Pug, who learns a very specific aspect of Not Being An Asshole in every book, but there are so many different ways of being an asshole an entire series has been generated from Pig’s assholery.

At the end — ‘the wink’ —  Pigeon wants another wholly unsuitable pet. This makes the story a circular plot, ending where it began with slightly different variables, w swapped out for p.

NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATIONS

The front cover says ‘pictures’. Is this simply because toddlers will understand ‘pictures’ but may not understand ‘illustrations’? I suspect there’s more to it than that — these are perhaps better described as pictures.

Every single thing in these minimalist picture books is there because it carries meaning. There is no background detail. These are stories about plot (centred on character) — they are not the sort of books in which the reader is invited to linger, enjoying the environment e.g. Blackdog by Levi Pinfold or anything by Shaun Tan.

It’s ultimately reductive, but my sort of cheat sheet is: If you were to look at all of my drawings [for a book] without any words and understand it, then there are too many drawings. The drawings are too detailed. And if you were to read the entire manuscript and it made sense, then there are too many words.

So it’s that marriage, that very delicate marriage between words and pictures, and then that marriage between author and audience where the audience is creating so much of the meaning. So my job is to create incomprehensible books for illiterates.

Mo Willems, NPR

How do picture book illustrators handle the delicate issue of swearing in children’s literature? Well, Pigeon clearly utters expletives here.

Other techniques derive from comic book convention, for instance the love hearts all around the speech bubble.

COMPARE AND CONTRAST WITH BABYMOUSE: PUPPY LOVE

The Puppy Love book of the Babymouse series by Jennier and Matthew Holm has a similar plot structure but expanded into a middle grade graphic novel length. Babymouse goes through a series of pets but proves an unreliable owner. Each of her pets escapes. Eventually a stray dog turns up. Owning a dog is not what she hoped it would be. The dog gets up to mischief, first chewing her shoes and clothes, then chewing her entire room.

The story ends when the dog’s owner comes to get it. (Behind the scenes the mother must have put out the word about finding a lost dog.) The plot reveal is that the dog is a girl, not a boy as Babymouse had assumed.

In an ideal world this would not be a reveal, but studies have shown that animal characters are automatically coded male unless given an obvious feminine marker, such as the bow Babymouse herself wears on her forehead. So this ending asks readers to perhaps not assume, next time, that an animal who gets up to mischief MUST be male.

The other interesting thing about Babymouse is how every character in the story is an animal. Babymouse, her family and classmates are all animals, but in shape only. They are otherwise completely human. But animals who behave like regular animals also exist in the story. Of course, no explanation is given for this, and I doubt the typical reader would even think about it.

Good Morning Mr Pancakes by Chris McKimmie

Good Morning Mr Pancakes

I first heard of Australian author illustrator Chris McKimmie on Children’s Books with Kate De Goldi.

Listen also to the interview between Kate and Chris at the Adelaide Writer’s Festival.

One of the secrets to success as an illustrator is having an instantly recognisable, one-of-a-kind style. McKimmie’s various book covers will give you a glimpse of his style.

The naive style of art also works really well to encourage children in their own illustration. The Dog Man series by Dav Pilkey, and the treehouse books by Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton do the same thing. Kids look at these pictures and think, you know what? I can do that. It doesn’t have to be realistic. Realistic art is sometimes confused for ‘good’ art.

Art is ‘good’ when it makes its audience feel something. That’s the only criterion. In picture books, art also tells a story.

Two Peas In A Pod Continue reading “Good Morning Mr Pancakes by Chris McKimmie”

The Trip by Ezra Jack Keats

The Trip cover

The Trip by Ezra Jack Keats was first published 1978, which makes it 40 years old. The Snowy Day is the most famous of Keats’ publications, but The Trip was also successful, and subsequently adapted into a play. Although I have not seen the play, I can imagine how a set designer was enchanted by the peep show box element of this picture book. There are instructions in the back for how to make one.

As a Jewish American and son of immigrants, Keats was hugely influential in American children’s literature for including people of colour in his work.

Keats was influential for another, related reason: His love of the urban landscape. Picture books such as A Lion In The Meadow were far more popular in the 1960s and 70s. Pastoral arenas make for a pleasant childhood utopia, after all. It’s almost as if children’s storytellers couldn’t imagine a child being happy in the city. Yet many children do live in the city, and almost as many wouldn’t have it any other way.

For much more on the symbolism of city versus country, see this post.

louie-on-plane-with-kids

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE TRIP

WEAKNESS/NEED

Like many fictional children, Louie has just moved to a new neighbourhood. This story is so popular because:

  • Every reader can identify with a character facing some big change. We’ve all had change in our lives. And if not, we all fear change somewhat.
  • In storytelling terms, this is the perfect plot because the child reader is now exploring Louie’s new world alongside Louie. This creates immediate character empathy.
  • It also provides the author/illustrator with a reason for explaining this new setting. Everything is new to the child, and everything is noteworthy.

Louie’s weakness is that he is new, anxious and doesn’t know anybody in his new neighbourhood.

DESIRE

Surface desire: Louie wants to have a bit of fun making a peep show box, because he doesn’t feel sufficiently confident to go outside.

Deeper desire: Louie wants to connect with people.

OPPONENT

In a story like this, in which the child is too scared to really do anything or go anywhere, what does a writer do about the opposition?

Well, it very often comes from the child’s imagination. That’s the very thing keeping them from moving in the first place.

The opponents are the scary creatures Louie makes inside his peep show box.

PLAN

To amuse himself with a peep show box. Though I doubt Louie meant to do this consciously, what he’s doing — in effect — is creating miniature versions of his old friends then disguising them as monsters so that the costume can subsequently come off, revealing scary things to be benign after all.

He flies back to his old neighbourhood in his imagination, as a way to transition himself from his old place to this new place a bit more slowly than has been forced upon him. I was thinking about the symbolism of flight, and how Keats was using that. But I don’t believe flight is the significant symbol here — it’s photography. I wrote about photography in young adult literature here, but the peep show box serves in this picture book in the same way.

Also, part of me thinks this story is about how kids are basically the same wherever you go — the trick or treaters of this new neighbourhood might as well be the same friends he has back home. This is an interesting concept, and it’s probably my own interpretation rather than Keats’ intent, but I do think kids of this age are adaptable. If they’re good at making friends in one environment, they’ll most likely find the same kind of comrades if they’re transplanted.

BATTLE

Louie meets the monsters head on. They chase him down a street. At first he seems to be trapped, but…

SELF-REVELATION

… then he recognises his friends who are dressed up.

The revelation for the reader is that it is Halloween. The revelation for Louie is that things may look scary on the outside are not at all scary when you really look at them closely (or get to know them).

Ergo: He realises that if he gets to know the kids in his new neighbourhood, they won’t be scary to him.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

Louie goes outside to join the new neighbourhood kids, and we extrapolate that he will make friends with them.

The Nightfish by Helen McCosker

The Nightfish Helen McCosker

The Nightfish is an Australian picture book written and illustrated by Helen McCosker. Published in 2006, this children’s story makes a good counterpoint to There’s A Sea In My Bedroom (1984). In Margaret Wild’s 1984 story, a boy takes a shell home with him from the beach and — as a child of the eighties I can tell you — no one thought twice about taking souvenirs from nature. Our current generation of children are more environmentally aware. Now they have at least bumped up against the idea of ‘Take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footprints’. This change of societal attitude is reflected in their picture books: If you take something from nature you must return it, otherwise you’ll upset the environmental balance and all hell will break loose.

Continue reading “The Nightfish by Helen McCosker”

There’s A Sea In My Bedroom by Margaret Wild

There's A Sea In My Bedroom

There’s A Sea In My Bedroom (1984) is a classic Australian picture book, written by Margaret Wild and illustrated in realistic fantasy style by Jane Tanner.

Margaret Wild is a well-known Australian author whose subject material ranches from melancholic to funny. I have previously blogged about Harry and Hopper and Chatterbox. Jane Tanner is also a well-known Australian illustrator, and also a writer and editor.

STORYWORLD OF THERE’S A SEA IN MY BEDROOM

When the sea/ocean is used in narrative, it’s worth making a clear distinction between the surface and the depths, because these are two very different arenas.

There’s A Sea In My Bedroom sticks firmly to the ocean surface. Wait until* David gets seaweed — or worse — tangled around his ankles, and steps on a blue bottle. Then he might get a bit suspicious about what the sea really is all about… but best to stick to paddling for now.

*David probably turned 40 this year, if he was six in the pictures.

STORY STRUCTURE OF THERE’S A SEA IN MY BEDROOM

WEAKNESS/NEED

David was frightened of the sea.

It’s right there in the opening sentence. Some advocate ‘showing not telling’ but in a picture book for very young readers, you often get both. First we’re told, then we’re shown. The image of the rough sea — and nothing else — is really quite scary actually.

Because this is a picture book, and you’ll have read plenty of picture books if you’re here at this blog, you will know from the very first line that this is a story about overcoming one’s fear of the sea.

DESIRE

An aversion to the sea is not in itself a desire, so Margaret Wild is sure to put something in that he’d rather be doing instead. David loves to collect shells, and he is quite happy doing this.

Tip for picture book authors: If your main character is afraid of something, give them a proxy desire, not directly related to the aversion. This will help the reader to feel like this is a complete and rounded story. But it does more than that: It lets us know that this is not a wholly pathetic character.

OPPONENT

You could argue that the father is David’s opponent. Dad gives David the conch shell and tells him — cruelly! — that the sea can be heard inside the shell. David then takes the shell home, and his greatest fear is inside his bedroom now.

PLAN

At home in his room, alone with the ‘magical’ shell, David goes on a carnivalesque adventure into a sea which invades his bedroom and fills it up. But this is not a scary situation, this is fun.

There's A Sea In My Bedroom bed as island

BATTLE

The proxy for the Battle scene is when his parents come in to find him writhing around on the carpet, in some sort of imaginary play. I suspect the young reader might expect a telling-off, because presumably David is meant to be in bed trying to get some sleep.

SELF-REVELATION

A soft growly, friendly sea.

When David explains to his parents that the imaginary sea was friendly, he can transfer that positive emotion to the real sea.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

Now David is able to enjoy swimming at the beach as well as collecting shells. He has learned that the sea is friendly.

(I’d argue that the sea is not particularly friendly in Australia, but that message is not helpful in a picture book.)

COMPARE AND CONTRAST

Where The Wild Things Are is the archetypal picture book about a boy who goes on an imaginary adventure at sea, though this one starts at the beach and ends there, too. And There’s A Sea In My Bedroom is designed to help children overcome a very specific fear, whereas Wild Things is more a mood piece about bad feelings in general. We don’t even know what it is exactly that leaves Max in such a bad mood.

Theodore Mouse Goes to Sea and The Sailor Dog are Little Golden Books about sea adventures — one a parody, the other written straight.

The Polar Express also makes use of the trope in which a child returns from an imaginary (not imaginary) adventure to find evidence of the trip in the form of something material. I’m not a fan of this trope, because I feel intuitively that it encourages magical thinking. (There’s a line between enjoying magical fiction and actively discouraging reason.) In There’s A Sea In My Bedroom, the talisman is a small pile of sand, which works really well for a reader like me, because the sand probably came out of the shell, or his shoe or wherever. There’s absolutely a real storyworld reason for a pile of sand to be in his bedroom. A young reader can be helped to understand that, too, unlike in The Polar Express.

Theodore Mouse Goes To Sea by Michaela Muntean

Theodore Mouse Goes To Sea

Theodore Mouse Goes To Sea is a Little Golden Book first published 1983. The illustrations are by Lucinda McQueen. There is a series of stories about Theodore the Mouse.

I find this particular picture book an unremarkable read, and since I took a close look at The Sailor Dog earlier in the week, it’s worth examining what makes the ‘animal goes to sea’ story by Margaret Wise Brown so much more effective. Continue reading “Theodore Mouse Goes To Sea by Michaela Muntean”

President Squid by Aaron Reynolds and Sara Varon

President Squid cover

The most hilarious thing about President Squid is that it is not about President Trump. Well, of course it’s about Trump and all of his kind, but as the author told Betsy Bird in an interview,  it was already written and in the publishing pipeline before Trump even began his campaign. Reynolds wrote it around 2013/2014 with an election year book in mind.

Yet you can’t get a book that is MORE about President Trump.

But Aaron Reynolds is very clear in his intention for this book: A conversation starter about what it takes to be a good leader. Not a critique of anyone in particular.  Continue reading “President Squid by Aaron Reynolds and Sara Varon”

Mister Dog by Margaret Wise Brown and Garth Williams

Mr Dog cover

Mister Dog, written by Margaret Wise Brown, was first published by Little Golden Books in 1952. This was the last book published in Wise Brown’s lifetime before she died age 42.

Garth Brown illustrated the text in his distinctive Garth Brown style.

The story is about a dog with the stand-out gag that he ‘belongs to himself’. This is reflected in his vaguely recursive (but ultimately nonsensical) name: Crispin’s Crispian*. I believe this was the name of Wise Brown’s own dog, and that the dog ran the show. It makes sense that the author thought of her dog as an individual with his own mind. By all accounts, the author herself refused to be constrained.

*Crispin and Crispian are also meant to be the twin patron saints of certain workmen like cobblers, curriers and tannery workers. I think she probably chose this name because it sounds poetic, not because it makes sense. (Crispin’s Crispin makes sense.)

Continue reading “Mister Dog by Margaret Wise Brown and Garth Williams”