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
Directly addressing the young reader
A main character who eventually tries to trick the reader
A battle scene featuring a tantrum
A circular ending
STORY STRUCTURE OF DON’T LET THE PIGEON DRIVE THE BUS!
Pigeon is only a pigeon and is not to be trusted doing human things (even though he or she speaks English).
This weakness is connected to pigeon’s Desire, which is to drive a bus.
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.
Pigeon’s plan is to make a case with the reader:
They will be careful.
They have a cousin who drives a bus. We extrapolate that Pigeon would therefore be excellent at it.
A sob story: “I never get to do anything!”
Next, Pigeon tries to trick the reader into playing a ‘game’ which is presumably driving the bus for real.
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.
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).
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.
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 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
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.
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”:
Drive a bus!
Eat a hot dog all by myself!
Stay up late!
A big, red truck!
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).
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
to create payoff at the end
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.
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:
water it once a month
go for piggyback rides on its back
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.
In picture books the Battle tends to comprise a large proportion of the total story. It tends to be a Battle Sequence.
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.)
“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.
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.
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 Elephant and Piggie books, invented by Mo Willems, are favourites of my 9-year-old daughter, who is otherwise long past beginner readers. She has asked for more Elephant and Piggies for her tenth birthday. She feels a lot of similar level stories are ‘too babyish’ for her but an enduring interest in the Elephant and Piggie series demonstrates the extraordinarily wide age appeal of these stories. As adult co-reader, I enjoy them as much as she does. These books are more than ‘dual audience’. Dual tends to refer to ‘one developmental phase of childhood plus the adults who read alongside’, but in this case the appeal is young childhood, middle childhood, right through.
There is no ‘formula’, because ‘formula’ suggests ‘low quality’ a la R.L. Stein’s Goosebumps series. But there is a certain structure that all good stories share. The Elephant and Piggie stories do conform to this structure. This structure provides a coat hanger for the originality that Willems and his writing team bring to each story in the series. Willems describes this structure as ‘a trellis’. He describes himself as a structuralist, ‘but more of a formalist than other people’ in the way he writes and constructs his stories. He says this comes from his time working in television. Television writers have to understand structure in order to get ideas out on time, and when your task is to create something exactly eleven minutes long it becomes even more important.
Some of my favourite picturebooks perform this trick of ‘a story within a story’. It’s a narrative technique. In novels for adults we often have an unseen narrator and we never really wonder who that narrator is, but in a picturebook you can give that narrator a personality, and you can even bring that personality into the story if it suits the plot.
We see it in Z Is For Moose, in which the animals are performing a stage play (for the reader).
It’s a postmodern technique, and postmodern picturebooks are famous for being metafictive. (In which the reader is constantly reminded that this is a story.)
Another book which knocks down ‘the fourth wall’ between reader and story is David Wiesner’s revisioning of The Three Little Pigs.
Many parent reviewers point out that the silent film technique in this Mo Willems picturebook goes over the heads of children and exists for adult co-readers. I think this is only half true. Child readers will still pick up that this is a story within a story even if they don’t recognise the exact medium of silent film. The drawings of the narrator (the bird’s babies) are not really difficult for kids to understand.
SILENT FILM TECHNIQUES
On the colophon page we have a ‘List of Players’. These days we might see ‘Cast’ or ‘Starring’. This terminology (as well as the font) is from the silent film era.
The silent film era lasted from 1894 to 1929. The buildings, fashion and interior decoration is also from that period, with the Fox dressed up as a Victorian gentleman and the goose wearing a headscarf. (Not only is there a gender and species difference here, but also a class one.)
White words on black background, like tech websites from the early 2000s, unrelatedly.
Exaggerated gestures — the fox lifts his hat very high while the duck shows very obvious signs of coyness. This feature is common between silent film and picturebooks, so doesn’t really stand out.
But Willems also borrows a Looney Tunes-esque technique: The dashed line to indicate line of vision:
THE INFLUENCE OF AESOP ON POSTMODERN PICTURE BOOKS
Modern animal stories like these owe so much to Aesop. The narrative wouldn’t work if our culture hadn’t already taught us that foxes are cunning and ducks are vulnerable. (As my husband says of our chooks, “It’s their own damn fault for being so delicious.”)
As Perry Nodelman explains:
There are historical reasons for this concentration of animals who act like humans, among them the fact that some of the first stories considered suitable for children were the fables of Aesop, in which supposedly characteristic animal attributes are identified with human behaviour. These identifications still operate in picture books today. The image of a fox in The Amazing Bone immediately evokes the idea of craftiness, and in picture book after picture book, we are meant to understand immediately that the lions depicted are arrogant, the peacocks proud, the pigs gluttonous, the mice timid, the rats nasty. As Leonard Marcus says in “Picture Book Animals,” “animals as images in our everyday thought and expression are among the most association-rich classes of symbols. Just under the surface of picture book fantasies, cultural meanings may well be at work.”
– Perry Nodelman, Words About Pictures
Nodelman also points out that traditional (Aesopian) ideas about which personalities belong to which animals can be turned upside down, used ironically. He gives the example of Pearl the pig in William Steig’s The Amazing Bone. Traditionally, we expect pigs to be dirty and gluttonous, but Pearl is delicate and refined. Dr Seuss does a similar thing with Horton the elephant, who would normally break a tree by sitting in a nest. We see Horton’s bulk and don’t immediately expect him to be timid. Young readers learn not to judge characters based on their appearance.
Here, too, Aesop’s animal personalities are turned upside down. Although foxes often meet a sticky end due to their overconfidence even in Aesop’s fables, the goose turns out to be the wiliest of all.
STORY STRUCTURE OF THAT IS NOT A GOOD IDEA BY MO WILLEMS
A story with a twist in the end makes you revise the entire thing. (For this reason we shouldn’t go about recommending books and films by saying ‘There’s a great twist!’) Hopefully anyone on this blog has already read the story, though.
The fox thinks he’s smart but he’s not.
He wants to eat a goose for dinner.
He plans to invite her home for dinner, pretending that she will be sharing the meal.
Standing around the big pot, who will push who into the stew?
The revelation happens for the audience, since the fox isn’t around to feel it. We see that the goose is not a weak little creature but is more wily than the fox.
The fox is dead. The goose and her chicks are well fed.
FOR FURTHER INVESTIGATION
A reviewer on Goodreads compares this Mo Willems picturebook to a novel for adults: Under The Skin by Michel Faber. (It’s also a film starring Scarlett Johansson.)