Saturday, 1 April 2023 marks the 20th anniversary of the publication of what has become a children's classic, Don't let the pigeon drive the bus by Mo Willems.
The book was a hit and has since spawned a series of picture book and board book titles. The pigeon has had a number of adventures since their first story covering topics like wanting a pet, going to school, taking a bath, finding a hotdog and staying up late. And the Pigeon has taken on an almost emblematic role in the "Willems-verse", turning up in "cameos" in other books by Willems, in much the same fashion as Stan Lee popping up in various Marvel movies. When you spot the Pigeon there's a flash of recognition and amusement, and the knowledge that you're in the right place because, lo, the Pigeon is here.
There's something in the personality of the Pigeon that makes their appearance outside of their own books very apt. The Pigeon is pure id, a creature who wants what they want, when they want it and will not be told otherwise. The Pigeon is exactly the kind of attention-seeking character who would sneakily invade another character's book for the purposes of showing off. The Pigeon has more than a little in common with young readers who may or may not have a handle on managing their emotions, sharing with others, and impulse control.
Through the Pigeon young children get the opportunity to vicariously live out their childish desires - what if... you really, really tried extremely hard to drive the bus? What if someone else has a cookie and you really, really want it? Why are you never allowed to stay up late? Parents and children can follow the Pigeon in these scenarios to see what happens. It is always amusing, quirky, a little subversive and definitely worth a re-read.
And the Pigeon's tendency to have a bit of a strop means that the opportunity is ripe for scenery-chewing over-acting which has always been my favourite part of reading aloud to small children (though I continue to be overlooked by The Academy. *sniff*). In our house we have a copy in te reo, Kaua e tuku mā te kukupa te pahi e taraiwa!, because OTT emoting can happen in any language.
Though the Pigeon is undoubtedly Willems' most famous creation as my offspring has grown into reading for themselves, the Elephant and Piggie books have been a joyous shared reading experience for us. Written with beginner readers in mind, the books focus on the adventures of two friends, Gerald the Elephant, and Piggie the, er, pig. As much of the action is narrated by just two characters, we very early on instituted a "you take the Piggie words, I'll take the Gerald words" approach to reading which a) made reading a book much less daunting for the less experienced reader and b) is aided by each character's words being a different colour. Gerald is a somewhat anxious character who has a tendency to overthink things, while Piggie is more confident and determined. They both have a tendency to get things wrong and be a bit silly. My child and I have read every single Elephant and Piggie book together, over and over again and neither of us have grown tired of them, nor of trying to spot the Pigeon in the endpapers of each book.
Mo Willems is also the first author that my child has ever sent a fan letter to. This involved going to the post office and getting a stamp to put on it, and drawing a picture of his "Pigeon book pitch" called "Don't let the Pigeon fly to the moon", in which the Pigeon is seen through the porthole window of a rocket ship. Imagine our excitement when we got some mail in response with a certificate and some Elephant and Piggie stickers!
During Covid lockdown an Elephant and Piggie book was one of only a couple of library books we had out at the time and it got read A LOT. We also spent some time being creative with Mo Willems' Lunch Doodles video series in which he shows you how to draw some of his most popular characters and just generally fosters creativity through art. It's pretty darn wholesome.
If you want even more Mo Willems in your life there are also some online animated versions of some of his books (featuring the Willems family as voice talent) like the Knuffle Bunny series, Goldilocks and the three dinosaurs, and a few of the Pigeon stories including The duckling gets a cookie?
So happy birthday to the Pigeon! May you continue to have adventures and may you never, ever, ever be allowed behind the wheel of a bus (come on, that's just not safe).
- More books by Mo Willems
- More picture book posts
- Mo Willems website (with email address for sending your own fan-mail!)