Monday, February 27, 2012

Mo Willems: Cat the Cat, Knuffle Bunny, Sesame Street

Enjoy the best of a bird situation
Annie Ho 

Parents with children of different ages often ask me what books will appeal to all of them. Some parents allow their children to each select a storybook, while others have separate read-aloud sessions with each child. When cuddling up for storytime with all your children, you hope that the books you are reading are not too 'babyish' for the older child and not too advanced for the younger one.

A child who is a proficient reader can be encouraged to read aloud to his younger siblings. However, just because a child can read on his own doesn't mean that it's time to stop your shared reading sessions. Reading aloud to children in primary school (and beyond) is a wonderful family activity.

When all the children are under six, you need well-written stories that will engage your kindergartener as well as illustrations that can capture the attention of your baby or toddler. For this, I turn to Mo Willems, one of my favourite authors for children under six. 

In November, my godsister, a teacher living in Boston, visited Hong Kong and brought us Willems' What's That Sound, Hound the Hound? and Let's Say Hi to Friends Who Fly!, both from his new Cat the Cat series. I loved them and quickly snapped up the other two books in the series, Cat the Cat, Who is That? and Time to Sleep, Sheep the Sheep! My kindergartener was able to recite the simple and direct stories after I read them to her a few times. But my greatest joy came from my stoic 12-month-old who, for some inexplicable reason, would burst out in laughing whenever we reached the part: 'Can you fly, Bird the Bird? Watch me! Flap flap flap flap flap ...'

The first Willems book in our home library was Knuffle Bunny Too. My daughter adored the story and I was fascinated by the simple illustrations placed atop black-and-white photographs. With a title like that, I knew there had to be a prequel and enjoyed showing my daughter how Trixie, the lead character, was a baby in the first story, Knuffle Bunny, then a toddler in the second book. 

What I appreciate most about Willems is his humour. The style is written for children, but with parents in mind, too. So, I should not have been surprised to learn that Willems spent nine years with Sesame Street, the pioneer of 'wink-wink to parents' humour. 

Another series is Elephant & Piggie, about a pessimistic pachyderm whose best friend is a pig that can't stop smiling. The latest in this series, Listen to My Trumpet, came out this month.These series are all stamped with the wit and genius word choice evident since his first book, Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! The child reader is an active part of the story: the bus driver tells the reader that he needs to step away asks him to please make sure the pigeon (who desperately wants to drive the bus) doesn't do so.

Now aware of Willems' Sesame Street connection, I zip through Pigeon and nod knowingly as I wonder whether he was behind the Mr. Noodle character on Elmo's World. (Mr. Noodle attempts a task, such as putting on a jacket, with children off-camera shouting directions: 'No, not like that, Mr. Noodle!' 'Put the sleeves in your arms!')

I relish that my children share my sense of humour. And I learn from their books, too. Occasionally, when I'm counting aloud, I will say, 'one, two, three, four ... seven!' and feign surprise as my elder child giggles and says: 'No, not like that, mama!'

Annie Ho is a board governor of Bring Me A Book Hong Kong, a non-profit organisation devoted to improving children's literacy through reading aloud to them and providing easy access to the best children's books for underserved communities across Hong Kong.

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