Let’s be clear—my kids do not just sit around watching TV. I mean, they want to, but we have rules about these things. They’ve got housework to do, and even though we’re really loose about screen time, there are times when the screens get turned off. They also get sent outside to play, although not right now, because it’s cold and rainy and there’s ice on the roads. Most important of all, they routinely read books or have books read to them. Sandy, who is four, reads; Zane, who is eight, is read to In both cases, one of the authors in question is Mo Willems.
Mo Willems is multitalented. He’s creator of Sheep in the Big City and The Off-Beats. He’s been a writer and animator for Sesame Street. He’s been a writer and animator for Code Name: Kids Next Door. But where my kids fell in love with him was as the author of dozens of children’s books. I don’t know how many of them we as a family own, but it’s a lot. Some of them, we have two copies, because I have no problem with giving each kid their own copy of a book, if it’s one they’ll both read.
From the day Zane was born, we’ve given him books to read. He’s gotten books from us, from our friends and relatives, from his school. The same is true of his sister. As any parent can tell you, a lot of those books are terrible. There are one or two books that got ruined that we did not replace. There are others that may have ended up in boxes we haven’t unpacked in a while. There are some we merely suffer though in irritation, reading over and over even though we loathe them.
One of the reasons we got the kids into Mo Willems was that one of Zane’s godmothers, who used to work in libraries, had shelved the books many, many times. When you shelf a book that often, or books by a single author, you get interested. So she looked through them and enjoyed them, and she recommended them to us. When a friend who works in a library recommends a book for your kid, it holds extra weight. So we read them, and then, we started collecting them.
Another friend who works for the Fort Worth libraries recently shared something suggesting that you read kids a thousand books before kindergarten. I asked if reading one book a thousand times counted. People laughed, but parents understand. There are books that you end up memorizing, because kids like routine, and routine means hearing the same book a lot. Calvin and Hobbes is one of the many pop culture works that plays off this. This means that an author you start out neutral to, you often end up disliking, and an author you start out disliking, you generally end up loathing.
The lovely thing about Mo Willems books is that they’re funny to both adults and kids. This isn’t by peppering the books with both adult and child jokes. This is by their combination of silliness and seriousness. The characters take themselves seriously in a believable way, but they’re in funny situations and say funny things. What’s more, it’s in ways that fit with the characters as they’re established. Gerald is outwardly confident and inwardly anxious. The Pigeon is obnoxious and demanding. Goldilocks is greedy and not terribly perceptive. Each character fits their story and their book’s comedy.
Zane’s been hearing us read him the books as long as he can remember, and he still asks for them for bedtime stories. Sandy’s been hearing them her whole life and still asks for them for bedtime stories. What’s more, both my children have been learning to read from them. Sandy can’t quite get through a whole one yet, but one of the ways we started teaching her was by showing her recurring words in the books and spelling them out each time they appeared. She knows the word “Gerald,” after all, and that’s not bad for a four-year-old.