Don’t Let The Pigeon Drive The Bus! by Mo Willems

A comparison between Mo Willems’ Don’t Let The Pigeon Drive the Bus! and another from the same series, The Pigeon Wants A Puppy, highlights certain shared comedy writing techniques found in both.

TECHNIQUES OF NOTE

  1. Directly addressing the young reader
  2. A main character who eventually tries to trick the reader
  3. A battle scene featuring a tantrum
  4. A circular ending

STORY STRUCTURE OF DON’T LET THE PIGEON DRIVE THE BUS!

WEAKNESS/NEED/PROBLEM

Pigeon is only a pigeon and is not to be trusted doing human things (even though he or she speaks English).

DESIRE

This weakness is connected to pigeon’s Desire, which is to drive a bus.

OPPONENT

The adult Opponent within the world of the story is the bus driver who, before the title page, has told the reader that he’s just popping out for a few moments — could the reader please not let the pigeon drive the bus while he’s away?

This is funny in its own right because it suggests the pigeon has previously done just this. And the thought bubble coming out of pigeon’s head on the front papers suggests memory, not just wishes, in light of this fact.

But with the bus driver gone, Willems turns the reader into Pigeon’s Opposition, as is the case in Pigeon Wants A Puppy. In this story, the pigeon pleads with the reader and the reader (hopefully) is on side with the authority figure and knows not to say yes.

PLAN

Pigeon’s plan is to make a case with the reader:

  1. They will be careful.
  2. They have a cousin who drives a bus. We extrapolate that Pigeon would therefore be excellent at it.
  3. A sob story: “I never get to do anything!”
  4. Next, Pigeon tries to trick the reader into playing a ‘game’ which is presumably driving the bus for real.
  5. Finally, ending this sequence, four ‘pages’ per page, each with a new reason for letting Pigeon drive the bus speeds up the pace and suggests Pigeon goes on and on about this for ages.

BATTLE

Pigeon throws a tantrum. Pigeon also threw a tantrum in The Pigeon Wants A Puppy. Big letters are scrawled across the page. Feathers float off (which kind of look like droplets of sweat — because I have anthropomorphised Pigeon).

SELF-REVELATION

We never know exactly what Pigeon is thinking after that because the ‘speech bubble’ is an angry scribble. But Pigeon looks resigned and downcast. Pigeon has the revelation that this is not going to happen.

This is confirmed when the bus driver returns and Pigeon has still not had a go at the wheel.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

But this is another circular plot and once the bus drives off, a big, red truck comes along. Pigeon decides they would like to drive that. No words are used for this — just another thought bubble. This time, Pigeon stands on the other side of the page (the right side). This creates a visual ending to THIS particular story.

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.

The Chicken Book by Garth Williams

The Chicken Book cover

This month I’m blogging a series aimed at teaching kids how to structure a story. This seven-step structure works for all forms of narrative. It works for picture books, songs, commercials, films and novels. Today I take a close look at a story so simple you’d wonder how it could include all seven steps. Yet it does, between words and pictures. Today’s picture book is The Chicken Book by Garth Williams, first published in 1946.

This makes The Chicken Book an example of literature which emerged between the first and second golden ages of children’s literature, when the publishing industry very much took a back seat to other world events. Namely, Garth Williams wrote and illustrated The Chicken Book at the end of the second World War.

The ideology of this story is more typical of the pre-war period. Child characters from the first golden age were self-sufficient, free-range and healthy and robust. The chicks (child stand ins) are not like that at first, but are chided accordingly and end up self-sufficient by the end. It’s basically a celebration of Puritan work ethic. During the wars, there was no room for anyone to take it easy. It was all hands to the pump. Women were seconded to do ‘men’s jobs’ (and didn’t easily retire to the home once the war was over, either.) With mothers out working in bullet factories and whatnot, the war era child was required to pull their own weight within the family. These chicks are wartime chicks.

Garth Williams is a standout illustrator of American children’s books. He illustrated Little House on the Prairie and Charlotte’s Web, so his work is still widely seen. His father was a cartoonist and his mother was a landscape painter, so it’s no surprise he combined those interests and ended up in children’s books. He also studied architecture, and brought his drafting skills into his illustrative work. The Chicken Book is one of his first works from a prolific career, and the first as both writer and illustrator.

The less we know about the man himself, the better we can enjoy his legacy. There is a surprising number of people who’ve made outstanding work for children yet in their personal lives were hardly upstanding citizens. Obituaries contain the glowing bits, so here’s a link to that, from 1996.

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE CHICKEN BOOK

WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER?

There is an entire brood of main characters in this picture book, but they are all identical. They are siblings and they look the same. They behave the same. For story purposes, this book has one main character — a chicken.

The other question to ask here: What is wrong with them?

They’re a bit lazy, or haven’t yet learned to do for themselves.

WHAT DO THEY WANT?

They all want food. Sure, they each want something slightly different — one even wants a piece of gravel for some reason. But basically they want something to peck and munch.

OPPONENT/MONSTER/BADDIE/ENEMY/FRENEMY

If The Chicken Book were a longer story an outside opponent would be necessary, but this is one of those super short narratives which gets away with ‘the main character is their own biggest enemy’.

WHAT’S THE PLAN?

Since these chicks are by their nature passive, they have no plan. That’s the entire problem. They literally just stand there and do nothing.

When your main character has no plan, someone else in the story has to make a plan for them. (It’s the mother who makes the plan.)

BIG BATTLE

Because Garth Williams places his ‘camera’ near the ground, when the mother hen turns up she’s formidable. When she tells the chicks to go ahead and scratch it feels like a telling off — at least, that’s how it felt as child reader. The Big Battle is the mother glaring at the chicks while standing over them.

WHAT DOES THE CHARACTER LEARN?

When the chicks scratch they immediately find their hearts’ desire.

HOW WILL LIFE BE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON?

This phase is omitted from the story because we can extrapolate on our own: We know that the chicks will keep scratching and finding good things to eat.

COMPARE AND CONTRAST THE CHICKEN BOOK

After The Fall is another example of a main character whose biggest opponent is themselves, although in Dan Santat’s book, Humpty’s anxiety is almost turned into a separate entity.

England’s Enid Blyton is an example of a children’s author who was writing and publishing prolifically all through this world war period of the 20th century. Notably, Enid Blyton makes no direct reference to war, anywhere. For her, writing was an escape, and her stories provided an escape for her young readers equally. In The Chicken Book, America’s Garth Williams has created a utopian version of an American farm, in which food is plentiful if only you know how to look for it.

You might also compare the original printing with a later one from the 1970s, in which printing technologies now allowed mass printing of highly coloured double spreads. My version, printed in the 1970s, is the full-coloured version. Printing technologies have made further advances since then.

with an odd little shrug

The Chicken Book with an odd little shrug

 

 

Birds In Children’s Literature

 

Birds occupy a special place in children’s stories, as they do in the Bible, in folklore and in fairytales. Are they good or are they evil? No other creature has so successfully been both, equally. If you’re writing a children’s story, you can do what you like with birds.

evil fairytale bird
The hooked beak of this bird is undoubtedly evil.

BIRDS IN THE OLD TESTAMENT

Remember that dove which Noah sent out, to see if the waters had subsided elsewhere? Everyone knows of that dove, because we see it depicted in art holding an olive leaf in its beak. Less memorable, for me at least, is the raven. Remember that? Noah sent out the raven first but it never came back. He only sent that dove out a week later. When he sent the dove out again and it didn’t come back this time, he knew waters had subsided enough for the bird to find somewhere on land.

I wonder what was supposed to have happened to that raven. Ravens today are super smart birds. I think maybe the raven was smarter than the dove and found dry land more easily. That’ why it never came back!

There’s more to this literary symbolism, of course. The raven is black and that dove is white. Ravens = bad, doves = peace. This is seen over and over again throughout our history of storytelling.

The Old Testament is all about ‘clean’ birds versus ‘dirty’ ones. When Noah gets off the ark he thanks God for the clean birds he took onto the ark with him. What’s the difference between a clean bird and a dirty bird? (Okay, ‘unclean’.) Dirty birds eat carrion. The clean birds mostly have a diet of grain, fruits, and vegetation. Humans are safer when eating ‘clean’ birds than birds who eat dead meat themselves — less chance of getting sick. However, when all the birds of the Old Testament are taken as a group, there is no clear-cut line we can draw between a clean and an unclean one. To our modern taxonomies, some of the birds on the unclean list seem a bit random.

CATS AND BIRDS

Continue reading “Birds In Children’s Literature”