|Mo Willems's Trixie and Knuffle Bunny. ("Knuffle Bunny Too")|
Knuffle Bunny Too: A Case of Mistaken Identity
By Mo Willems
Hyperion, 48 pp., ages 4 to 8, $16.99
Publishers appear ready to dig an early grave for the picture book, but, to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated - well, let's just say exaggerated. Without question, picture books are in trouble.
The first question is, why? The second and third might be, how about the exceptions and what can we learn from them? This month's column is dedicated to Mo Willems, who may single-handedly save the genre from extinction.
For more than 20 years publishers had been upping the ante on glitz, the so-called "wow factor," and just plain weirdness in illustrated books for young children. In my experience, very young children are not terribly drawn to glitz; they are still wowed by ice cream cones; and they are puzzled by the merely weird, especially when it renders their world unrecognizable - when one cannot tell the car from the carton of milk. Nonetheless, during the 1970s, '80s, and '90s, picture books became steadily more bizarrely elaborate, more costly to make and to buy.
When these expensive oddities failed, publishers began churning out picture books as if they were tourist postcards, with as much substance and style. I recently spent an afternoon wandering through a large chain bookstore in Manhattan, looking at new picture books. Ninety percent of those marked "highly recommended" were, in a word, ghastly. The art was sloppy or imitative, the prose deadly, the sentiment sticky enough to draw flies. The vast majority of the picture books one sees now are stale and - not surprisingly - unprofitable. For there is nothing of genius, wrote Coleridge, that does not possess some degree of strangeness.
Enter Mo Willems. He first came to wide attention with his brilliantly weird book "Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus," which captured a 2004 Caldecott Honor Medal. In it, a manic pigeon - or a 3-year-old cleverly disguised - begs, pleads, lies, and throws tantrums in order to be allowed to drive the bus. Not all of the "Pigeon" sequels have been equally admirable, which made me shudder a moment at the sight of "Knuffle Bunny Too: A Case of Mistaken Identity," the brand-new sequel to his "Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale."
Willems's lovely, light-handed "Knuffle Bunny" won a 2005 Caldecott Honor, among other distinctions. It's about a toddler in Brooklyn whose father leaves her favorite stuffed animal, Knuffle Bunny, behind in a laundromat. Trixie can't talk yet, so when she realizes the mistake, she tries to persuade her father to turn back by yammering, howling, and, among other things, "going boneless" in one tour-de-force illustration. "Knuffle Bunny" is a book about fathers and daughters; about what drives us, finally, to speech; and, not least, it's a living, loving tribute to Brooklyn. The book successfully and bizarrely combines illustrative and photographic images. So does "Knuffle Bunny Too."
Now Trixie is "a big girl," as my 4-year-old would say. She can walk and talk, and she's looking forward to introducing her absolutely unique, "one-of-a-kind" Knuffle Bunny to her whole pre-school class. But Trixie's nemesis shows up with Knuffle Bunny Too.
The result of two identical bunnies is hurt feelings, sulks, quarrels, and both bunnies being taken away by the teacher and returned at the end of the day. It is also, as the subtitle tells us, a case of mistaken identity. Which Knuffle Bunny is which? I don't want to give too much away. One might logically quibble about the hour at which the two fathers decide to rectify the problem. One might even resist a certain cuteness in the epilogue. But with Willems, logic and consistency are often beside the point.
His genius, the most crucial genius for the picture book, lies in his unerring instinct toward the essential. There is no fat in his work, nothing lax. His art captures character and fate in a few drawn lines, in pale bright colors like the washed-out Bazooka bubblegum wrappers, in the fewest words possible. What one loved in Charles Schulz's "Peanuts" all those years ago, or in "Calvin and Hobbes" more recently, Willems creates anew without losing a drop of expression, humor, inventiveness, or drama.
It's unsurprising that Willems began his award-winning career in television: His picture books are broken up into movie-like frames. They zoom in, hesitate, split the image, make room for comic double-takes. His books ask us to look closer, to look again. One must search with the eye of a Sherlock Holmes to discover the clues for "Knuffle Bunny Too" 's mistaken identities.
Trixie and her family are city dwellers. Brooklyn is fully, gorgeously alive again here in "Knuffle Bunny Too," its nighttime mystery celebrated, its iconic architecture shining right at the center of the story, in a fabulist's aerial view of the arch in the Grand Army Plaza. "Knuffle Bunny" fans who were toddlers in 2004 are ready now for "Knuffle Bunny Too." Like all great children's books, it will grow with them. Like all great picture books, it will outlast the naysayers.
Liz Rosenberg is professor of English and creative writing at Binghamton University.