Tuesday, April 8

The Pigeon Wants a Puppy

by Mo Willems
Hyperion 2008

Well, I think the pigeon has jumped the shark.

I know, I know, there are many out there, legions of you perhaps, who feel that Mo and his beloved blue bird can do no wrong. To be fair, it isn't a bad book, it's just that the pigeon seems to have... changed.

First, we're seeing more facial expressions in the pigeon, and many of them seem rather feminine to me. Nothing wrong with the pigeon a boy or a girl, or gender neutral, but this time around it feels more pronounced. That in and of itself isn't a problem. But the punchline is that the pigeon doesn't know what a puppy is and is frightened when it finally meets one and, well, it acts a bit too girly in its fear. It isn't that a boy can't be frightened of a big dog, or that kids don't like the concept of a pet more than the reality, it's that when the expressions leading up to the reveal feel feminine, a stereotypical girl reaction leaves a bad taste.

Am I off base, reading too much into this? Relax, old man! It's just a picture book for kids, I hear you say. I still say the pigeon has some other problems.

We began with a pigeon who wanted to drive a bus. Well, that's just silly, and as much as it pleaded with us we wouldn't let it drive the bus. There was a great little hint that we were supposed to talk back to the pigeon because the bus driver told us not to let anyone drive the bus.

Next, pigeon finds a hot dog, which had a cute little ducky to act as a foil, asking all sort of annoying questions. I couldn't help thinking about a bird eating another animal's meat, but that's the kind of thing only an adult would worry about. Still, the pigeon's antics amuse and entertain in keeping with our previous experience.

Then the pigeon wanted to stay up late, which is a common problem among children and adults. The pigeon uses every trick in the book and there's a creeping sense that perhaps the pigeon isn't so unique. Yes, kids want to drive the bus, but they cannot, but pigeons should even less so. And kids are always finding things on the ground to put in their mouths, but a pigeon and a hot dog are a wacky combination. Not wanting to go to sleep? That feels a bit to pedestrian for the pigeon. You could have substituted a character from any other book and it wouldn't have made a difference.

Now the pigeon wants a puppy. It has some unrealistic ideas about what puppy ownership means - watering it like a plant, riding around on it bareback -- but this doesn't feel odd enough. Of course, the punchline of this book makes more sense and I almost would have preferred the book start there.

But there's something else going on here, something a bit more strange. The pigeon is acting like it has an awareness of itself that goes beyond the book. It's a hard thing to explain, it's almost as if the pigeon is aware of its popularity in the world and has become spoiled like a star. There's a lack of innocence, almost as if it's playing for the camera. These closer, more expressive (yet still simple) line drawings are showing us a pigeon who knows its being watched. The coy cuteness is more Actors Studio than playground, the anger is studied. The bird is veering dangerously close to self-parody inviting young readers to say "Okay, we know you're going to get what you want, I guess we can put up with all your mock protesting to find out what happens when you get it."

If you read Mo Willem's blog on a regular basis you will see the sort of adventures kids propose for the pigeon as he posts some of the choice ones he gets from time to time. They capture the absurdity of the pigeon books, which is what bothers me about ...a Puppy. Don't Let the Pigeon Punch Himself sounds a whole lot more fun!

I know adults and children can't get enough of pigeon, and I was among them for a while. I don't think the franchise has capsized just yet, but that bird is going to have to pop off with something truly unexpected next time or else it's time to abandon ship.

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