While the death of picture books may be imminent according to some, there are several authors and illustrators that are breathing new life into the world of children’s literature. One of those writers is Northampton resident Mo Willems.
Willems, who left behind a lucrative career as a writer and animator for children’s programs to focus on his writing, has written and illustrated books so charming, so simple, so funny that one is left to wonder, “Why didn’t I think of that?” He takes mundane concepts that have been dealt with many times before in picture books (broken bones, lost stuffed animals, not getting what you wished for, etc.) and adds a dash of absurdity to create books that are as enjoyable to read for adults as they are for children. They’re funny without relying on bathroom humor, and they’re sentimental without being overdone.
The Knuffle Bunny series, in particular, showcases Willems’ balance of humor and sentimentality. The first book, titled Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale, follows a tot named Trixie as she joins her father on a trip to the laundromat, her favorite stuffed animal in tow. Willems uses black and white photographs as the backdrop for this picture book, adding his colorful and cartoonish illustrations. The story, too, is as simple and charming as these pictures; Trixie’s beloved Knuffle Bunny accidently winds up in the washing machine with the laundry and she realizes this shortly after she and her father leave to make their way home. What follows is a young non-speaking child’s response – crying, stomping, becoming “boneless” – and her father’s – confusion, attempt to comfort, and, ultimately, annoyance. Ultimately Mom rushes in to save the day with her keen observation that Trixie’s constant companion is missing, and the family rushes back to the laundromat, through the same scenes and photographs Willems used before. Of course, the ending is happy and Trixie exclaims “Knuffle Bunny!” at the sight of her friend (and those happen to be her first words).
While the series begins as sweet and funny, and could have stood alone that way, Willems follows with two other books, Knuffle Bunny Too: A Case of Mistaken Identity and Knuffle Bunny Free: An Unexpected Diversion. Here we see the “life lessons” that regularly appear in books for young children – Trixie experiences jealousy and dislike, but learns to share and make friends, and learns to put others before herself – but in typical Willems fashion complete with funny segues, running jokes, and a dash of heart that won’t leave parents feeling queasy with over-the-top sentimentality. The first book recieved the Carnegie Medal in 2007, and that and the sequels have received Caldecott Honors and places on the New York Times Bestseller List.
Picture books may be losing popularity, but Willems may be an aid in their comeback. Recently Knuffle Bunny was made into a real-life plush, and a Willems fan noted this in a tweet: “Walking in Bklyn today, saw a toddler point to laundromat & babble something. His Dad nodded; said, “Yes, Knuffle Bunny.” Aww!!” Willems, and his impact, aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.