This Mo Willems article is awesome

This New Yorker profile of Mo Willems has me super-duper happy. Not only do I like his books as much as my kid so I love learning more about the man behind Elephant and Piggie, that rascal Pigeon, and of course the trials of Trixie and Knuffle Bunny but this article is chock full of Author's Craft/Craft and Structure connections. (Link good as of May 2017.)

Take a look at these quotes I particularly adore (though I strongly suggest just going and reading the entire thing):

Instead of imitating what he loved about “Go, Dog. Go!,” Willems wanted to write what was missing. His duo consisted of an anxious male elephant named Gerald and a sunny female pig named Piggie...Gerald and Piggie appear against a plain white background, so that the reader’s attention is on the expressiveness of their relative postures, the tilt of their ears, of their eyebrows. “I wanted every adventure to be them re-establishing their friendship, not just having fun, because that’s a different thing from friendship.” Willems recalled a formative creative partnership: “We’d be shouting at each other over decisions all morning, then go have a great time together at lunch. That was what I wanted.”

....“My Friend Is Sad.,” in which, Willems was reminded, the word “sad” appears—problematic from a marketing standpoint. “I compromised by taking the punctuation out after ‘sad’ so that the sadness wouldn’t feel so terminal,”...

“Because these stories aren’t meant to be read once—they’re meant to be read a thousand times..."

Balzer [Willems's editor] felt that the book needed to be formatted differently, in part because it looked more like a cartoon than most illustrated children’s books of the time did. She had it printed on uncoated paper, omitted a dust jacket, gave it a lower price than that of similar titles, and later used Pigeon as a recurring character to advertise other children’s books. Willems began the story on the endpapers, rather than after the title page.

In one panel [of a comic drawn by a young boy], a potato gets skinned. “He looks shy about not having his skin on,” I said. The boy corrected me: “No, he’s not shy, he’s embarrassed.”

Dude. DUDE.

This article gets at just about all the CCSS Reading standards but it especially gets at those Craft and Structure ones that can be hard to nail when you don't, you know, KNOW the author. (I'm reminded of THIS Huff Post article by a poet who couldn't answer standardized teest questions about her own work.) It also could work for many different age groups: Selective quotes for younger kids, chunks or the entire thing for older kids. The writing is wonderful (Brava, Ms. Galchen!) and the topic would be unintimidating for older students. Modeling the examination of craft and structure with picture books - particularly these insanely popular ones - is a perfect way to start the examination before diving into harder texts and/or inaccessible authors.

Let me take a moment to brainstorm some of the connections I see to the CCSS. I'm going to stay focused on the anchor standards. This list is obviously NOT exhaustive. I'm allowing myself 15 minutes for the 10 anchor standards in Reading.
  1. Have students verify claims made by the author of the article, Mr. Willems, and the editor about the illustrations, words, and construction of the book: Can you verify each statement? Can you find places in the books where they veer from what is said in the article and make inferences about why?
  2. What would you say the main message is of the article? There may be several. What quotes or details support your reading?
  3. The article talks about Mr. Willems's life growning up and experiences in other jobs. Can you create a timeline that includes important dates, events, or lesson's learned? When you look at his older books compared to newer ones (or the Knuffle Bunny trilogy) do you see ideas developing in a way that mirrors Mr. Willems's life events? When you look at characters like Gerald and Piggie or Pigeon in their own books, how do they interact with each other or the reader and did you see those interactions referenced in the article?
  4. Look at the last quote above - how the young writer clearly differentiated between shy and embarrassed. Now look at a Mo Willems book: Can you find any word choices that are very, very specific or technical? Why would the author choose that word? (Note that one quote I didn't put above also mentioned that Willems is really working with 40-50 words.) Can you find an other childern's book where one or two technical terms are especially important to the story? Focusing more on the article: Is there a paragraph or single line by Ms. Galchen that stands out to you? What specific words or phrase caught your attention? How did that help shape meaning or tone and the way you read (or re-read) the article?
  5. Look up other write-ups about Mr. Willems. How are they structured vs. this article? Chronologically? Do they focus on just one character? What are the intendend audiences for each source?
  6. Gotta save time... the one above got at CCRA.R.5 and 6!
  7. Find other articles about Mr. Willems and/or by Ms. Galchen. Vidoes, selections from books, etc. What can you learn about them? Heck, before even reading this article, ask students to read a slew of Willems's books. What patterns do they notice? Could they write an article like Ms. Galchen's? Perhaps even give them a few incomplete paragraphs from the article and see if they can't come to their own conclusions and complete some of the paragraphs or sentences.
  8. YES... I'm running out of time and CCRA.R.8 (delineate and evaluate the argument) works with what I had for CCRA.R.1. Time saver! But, uh, you could also let studnets look at a book like Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus and identify the arguments for it.. does it seem reasonable? Or in Waiting is NOT Easy! were Piggie's claims that it'd be worth it and reasons for keeping Gerald waiting reasonable?
  9. Yes! Look at other books about waiting... or beloved lost toys.. or Goldilocks.. or whatever other Willems book and then compare it to another picture book that touches on something similar. Do you see the different approaches in lessons? Or the article specifically mentions Go, Dog. Go!. Compare the works of Eastman and Willems and do you think the claims in the article are valid?
  10. Read independently? Go have your students read to younger kids.

Full disclosure, that took slightly more than 15 minutes but I think you get the point. This article has a lot of sophistication and entrances for lessons considering it's about a children's book author.

Note in May 2017: I hope Ms. Galchen's article got you thinking as much as it got me thinking. I've returned to this article frequently since it first came out because I love it. I forward it to pretty much every elementary person I know. I also looked up more of Ms. Galchen's work and stumbled on this great list of New Yorker articles about Childhood Reading. Yet more great writting about reading and demonstrations of metacogntion. Bonus: A diverse group of writers.

Want to discuss this? Contact us at or tweet your comment to us @ProjectCRISS. We'll add comments here!