Top 100 Picture Books #7: Knuffle Bunny, A Cautionary Tale by Mo Willems
#7 Knuffle Bunny, A Cautionary Tale by Mo Willems (2004)
These perfect pictures of New York City complement the family tale of Daddy who is wrong, wrong, wrong, and Trixie, who is totally right, but can’t yet say words to tell him. Heartwarming and hilarious. – Diantha McBride
And this is the book that sealed that obsession evermore. Mo-tastic. – Pam Coughlan
There have been others, and they are just as good, but this one still makes all of us smile (and my youngest is six now). Sometimes, the first one is still the best. – Melissa Fox
This may be a shocking inclusion on the Top 10 list to some, but for others they might remember that last time I conducted this poll Knuffle Bunny came in at a reasonable #10. Now it moves up three spots, which may owe as much to its continued popularity as to the success of its subsequent sequels. I do wonder if even Mr. Mo knew that Trixie would gain a trilogy out of the tale of one lost bunny.
The plot from my old review reads, “Trixie and her pop are off to the local neighborhood Laundromat one bright and sunny day. They get there, load the clothes, and take off for home when little Trixie comes to an awful realization. Knuffle Bunny, her beloved favorite toy, is missing. Unfortunately for her, she has not yet learned to talk. After some valiant tries (my favorite being the single tearful ’snurp’) she feels she has no alternative but to burst into a full-blown tantrum. This doesn’t make her father any happier and since he hasn’t realized what the problem is, he takes her home as she kicks and screams. Once home, however, her mother quickly asks, ‘Where’s Knuffle Bunny’? Back runs the whole family to the Laundromat where, at long last, the beloved bunny is recovered and Trixie says her first real words.”
Its origin story is rooted in a happy accident. Alessandra Balzer (of Balzer & Bray, an imprint of Harper Collins) was in an office with Mo and his art director as he vaguely told a story about his daughter. Alessandra insisted that he turn the story into a book, so he went home to try. He’d done a comic about his family for a DC comics anthology but, as he says in Leonard Marcus’s book Show Me a Story: Why Picture Books Matter, “the characters weren’t popping and I couldn’t get it to work. Then one of my drawings accidentally fell on top of one of the photographs on my light box, and I suddenly had the idea to combine the two.” That distinctive look is part of what sets KB apart from the pack. He result is that Willems believes that by combining drawings with photos “They’re purer than more realistic drawings of the character would have been, because their design focuses on their emotional side.”
Mo spoke at a SCBWI conference in the Pacific Northwest about five or six years ago. At the time he discussed the fact that Knuffle Bunny was the first Caldecott Honor winner to contain photography in any way, shape, or form. He’s been asked since then why he made such a “bold” choice. The fact of the matter, though, is that he partly saw it as a time saver. Of course, once he got into it he didn’t realize the amount of soul-sucking hours it would take to resize the characters so that they’d be proportional within their photographic environment. As it happens, the result is that he managed to create one of the only (perhaps THE only?) Caldecott Honor winners to incorporate photography into its images.
Said Horn Book, “There’s plenty here for kids to embrace. There are playful illustrations and a simple, satisfying story. This everyday drama will immediately register with even pre-verbal listeners.”
Kirkus and its starred review said of it, “Anguish begets language in this tale of a toddler’s lost stuffie . . . The natural audience for this offering is a little older than its main character: they will easily identify with Trixie’s grief and at the same time feel superior to her hapless parent-and rejoice wholeheartedly at the happy reunion.”
The starred review from SLJ said of it, “Personalities are artfully created so that both parents and children will recognize themselves within these pages. A seamless and supremely satisfying presentation of art and text.”
The starred Booklist review (which is more than a little excellent) by Jennifer Mattson said, “This comic gem proves that Caldecott Medal-winner Willems, the Dr. Spock and Robin Williams of the lap-sit crowd, has just as clear a bead on pre-verbal children as on silver-tongued preschoolers . . . Even children who can already talk a blue streak will come away satisfied that their own strong emotions have been mirrored and legitimized, and readers of all ages will recognize the agonizing frustration of a little girl who knows far more than she can articulate.”
But don’t take my word for it. Here’s a fun activity. Go to YouTube and type in “Knuffle Bunny”. The results yield parent after parent after parent reading the books to their children.
Speaking of videos, if you want to see the Carnegie Award winning Weston Woods video of Knuffle Bunny, there’s no better place to watch it than here. Read, as it happens, by Mo and the real Trixie. Please excuse the bizarre subtitles on this sample:
Live action more your style? Well here’s one of the theatrical productions of the show. Dear me. Would that every picture book author were so lucky.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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