I know, it seems like blasphemy for a writer of a children’s books blog to type those words, but it is true. That is not to say that I do not love Dr. Seuss. I adore him!
But right now, I am the mom of a five year old learning to read. Having taught MANY children to read over the years, I declare EMPHATICALLY that the
“Elephant and Piggie” book series by Mo Willems
are the BEST books available for engaging the newest readers.
I am writing this post in hopes of introducing a few of you to this amazing series. If you are not familiar with the Elephant and Piggie books, head straight to your library and check out all they have. You won't be disappointed. I am always surprised by the number of Don't Let the Pigeon Drive The Bus fans who don't know about these.
The Elephant and Piggie books are early readers by Mo Willems that feature two unlikely best friends who learn and grow together. There are currently 17 books in this series.
So, why do I think they are better than anything else out there, including the great early reader contributions by Dr. Seuss?
1- The Elephant and Piggie books are short. -Pigs Make Me Sneeze has 188 words on 57 pages. The Cat in the Hat has 1629 words on 61 pages. For a new reader and his enthusiastic parents, the books can be completed in a time frame that manages to maintain the interest of both the young reader and the doting listeners (before mom and dad become the “doZing” listeners). They are the PERFECT length!
2- Willems has perfected the use of the speech bubble. My son loves speech bubbles! They help him recognize which character is speaking. They help him know if the character is speaking LOUDLY, because the word bubbles are LARGER. He knows if they are speaking softly, because the word bubbles are smaller. This helps him read with expression, THE VERY FIRST TIME THROUGH! He doesn’t stumble through in a monotone voice, like he does with some other early readers. He knows when to use a grumpy voice, give a happy cheer, or whisper quietly. Just from the speech bubbles and font size. I never really understood the power of the speech bubble in early literacy, until I was introduced to Mo Willems.
2 ½-Did I mention the use of speech bubbles? Speech bubbles lend themselves beautifully to shared reading, an important part of reading instruction. My son and I each choose a character in the book and read all of his or her lines throughout the entire book, similar to reading a play. In fact, we have often used the Elephant and Piggie books as scripts for puppet shows or plays. (Any other early literacy specialists out there know that RETELL is also an important part of reading instruction).
3- The books use real words. This makes it easier to use context clues and phonetics to figure out unfamiliar words. ‘Jertain’ and ‘Zizzer-Zazzer-Zuzz’ are certainly fun and silly to say, but context clues are useless to figure them out and can frustrate the newest readers.
4-Speaking of context clues...the PICTURES are so clear and simple, so concrete. Yet somehow they convey the meaning of the story so perfectly, that it is easy for a child stuck on a word to look at the pictures and determine what the word should be or the emotion with which the words should be expressed. How do you do that, Mo? How do you get one simple line across a pig’s eye lid to say so much?
5-The Elephant and Piggie books are quite simply put.... hilarious! Laugh out loud funny. Tears in your eye funny. Appropriately funny. My children and the adults in our family giggle every time we read the “Piggie and Elephant” books, whether it is the first time or the 37th. (There is no need to pander to bathroom humor or jokes above the kids’ heads). We all think the books are truly funny.
6-According to the official Mo Willems website, each book is reviewed by early childhood reading specialists before publication! (Something I didn’t know before working on this article). I feel even better as a parent knowing that not only does my gut tell me this is good, quality, children’s literature, the “experts” agree as well.
7-Most Elephant and Piggie books teach valuable lessons, without being too preachy. Friends are better than toys. (I Love My New Toy). Being outside is fun in all kinds of weather (Are You Ready to Play Outside?). Asking politely can make things better. (There’s A Bird On My Head). There isn’t always just one right way to do something. (Elephants Can’t Dance). Lots of Dr. Seuss books do teach valuable lessons, too. But it is hard to find in his early readers. I am not quite deep enough to find the moral of the ABC Book, the Foot Book, or Hop on Pop.
8-Most importantly, I love the Piggie and Elephant Books because they give my son CONFIDENCE as a reader. He can pick one up and know that he can read it with fluency and expression. He knows he will laugh. He knows he will enjoy himself. And what can any parent want more for their son, then for him to LOVE to read.
***I want to be clear that I do honor Dr. Seuss as a Founding Father of all that is good in children’s literature. There would be no Mo Willems without Dr. Seuss and his legacy. I have laughed at his silly absurdities with my kindergarteners and my own three children. I have read his inspired lessons about Sneetches with “stars upon thars” with my fourth grade students, who were struggling to fit in or to include everyone. I have even been inspired myself as a young adult, during a particularly difficult time in my life, by one of his lesser known books I Had Trouble Getting to Solla Sollew.
But for new readers, I think Mo Willems has Dr. Seuss beat. Once my son is ready, he will be able to read Dr. Seuss to himself. But for now, I will read Dr. Seuss to him and HE will read Mr. Willems’ Elephant and Piggie books to me. He reaches for them each day...and we never tire of them. Thank you for your wonderful books, Mo Willems. Thanks for helping my son LOVE to read, and for helping the job of teaching him to read be such an enjoyable experience.
***Mo Willems also has another early reader series, the Cat the Cat books. We love those as well for most of the same reasons we love Elephant and Piggie! And of course we love his famous Pigeon and his Knuffle Bunny and Leonoardo and Amanda and.......many more friends.