Top 100 Picture Books #3: Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus by Mo Willems
#3 Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus by Mo Willems (2003)
Proof that temper tantrums are an art form of their own. – DaNae Leu
Top three betraying my love for fourth-wall-breaking. – Robin Parry
Remember when picture books never broke the 4th wall? When I read this book to students after it was first published, they went crazy. The idea that the book characters were talking to them was something they had never encountered before. Now my students are quite used to this idea. They are used to this idea thanks to Mo. I guess it wouldn’t be a good idea for me to quit my job and become a Mo Willems follower. (kind of like a deadhead, but without the tye-dye and VW bus.) – Amy Miele
From #5 to #3 (the previous Top 100 Picture Book Poll versus the curren Top 100 Picture Book Poll), it’s clear that the longer time goes on the more followers the Pigeon garners. I credit his p.r. team. Not only does he have his own books to fall back on (this year’s The Duckling Gets a Cookie?! is case in point) but he even shows up in other characters’ books! Talk about a clever bird.
Children’s Literature describes the plot in this way: “In this picture book with simple pictures and lots of empty space, a cute blue pigeon begs the reader to let him drive the bus while the bus driver is gone. He implores, promises, whines, begs, bribes (like I don’t get enough of this from my kids) in order to get his chance. He says things like, ‘I bet your mom would let me’ or ‘I have dreams you know.’ This could actually be a sad book (hey, I was always the kid who wanted the Trix rabbit to actually get some Trix) except for the last two pages. After the bus drives off leaving the pigeon looking dejected, a semi drives up, the pigeon looks at it, and says, ‘Hey…’, and the end papers of the book have the pigeon smiling, eyes closed as he envisions himself driving a semi.”
Here is what we know about the creation of this book (yet again that sneaky 21st century publication date is wreaking havoc with my reference tools). I’m drawing on my memory files here, so someone correct me if I get any of this wrong. When our story begins Mo Willems is an animator, a cartoonist, and the kind of fellow who can do a gig on Sesame Street in his spare time. Every year he creates these little sketchbooks for his friends and acquaintances. He’s been doing them since 1993. Anywho, he creates one of them and it’s just this funny little black and red ditty called Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus. It’s pretty much what you see in its final finished form today, actually. Well, his literary agent (Marcia Wernick) tries to sell this puppy all over town. Bupkiss. Publishers aren’t interested. It’s way too weird. Too wild. Too unlike what’s selling today (though I’m sure someone could have remembered that The Monster at the End of this Book has a similar layout and a heaping helping of moolah as a result). The happy ending? Book sells. Mo’s suddenly a picture book author/illustrator. Batta bing, batta boom, instant success. The masses cheer. The children get to scream “No” even more often on a daily basis.
Six years later the Hyperion website announces that, “DON’T LET THE PIGEON DRIVE THE BUS! Has been named a finalist for the Picture Book Hall of Fame for the 2009 Indies Choice Book Awards.” Picture Book Hall of Fame, eh? Well guess what? It got in.
Mind you, you could probably find this all out by going to The Pigeon Presents, a unique user-friendly site that includes all things Mo (but not, unfortunately, mo’ things awl). You may also just do what I did and skip to the grownup stuff section where the videos will say everything I just did but with zing and pizzazz.
The Pigeon has, of course, been adapted to the stage (with a sequel). You may also see it as a Halloween costume (countdown to future Sexy Halloween Pigeon Costumes in three . . . two . . . one . . .)
Does it surprise you to hear that there’s already been an adult parody of the book? Expect to see Don’t Let the Republican Drive the Bus to hit bookstore shelves in August. The only reason I knew of it was that they had prints of it at ALA.
And finally, apropos of nothing, I adore the fact that the Barnes and Noble entry for this book inexplicably has decided to write the Mo Willems biography in Spanish. We would have also have accepted pig latin.
School Library Journal said of it, “In a plain palette, with childishly elemental line drawings, Willems has captured the essence of unreasonableness in the very young. The genius of this book is that the very young will actually recognize themselves in it.”
Booklist, starred review in tow, said, “Willems is a professional animator, and each page has the feel of a perfectly frozen frame of cartoon footage–action, remarkable expression, and wild humor captured with just a few lines. Preschoolers will howl over the pigeon’s dramatics, even as they recognize that he wheedles, blows up, and yearns to be powerful just like they do.”
Publishers Weekly said, “Readers will likely find satisfaction in this whimsical show of emotions and, perhaps, a bit of self-recognition.”
Kirkus and its starred review said, “A first picture book by an Emmy Award–winning writer and animator, listeners will be begging, pleading, lying, and bribing to hear it again and again.”
And Horn Book’s starred review said, “Clean, sparely designed pages focus attention on the simply drawn but wildly expressive (and emotive) pigeon, and there’s a particularly funny page-turn when a well-mannered double-page spread with eight vignettes of the pleading pigeon gives way to a full-bleed, full-blown temper tantrum.”
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.
SLJ Blog Network