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Bad naughty pigeon
on March 2, 2006
If you are ever handed the chance to see Mo Willems speak in person, run (do not walk) to the event. Not only does Mr. Willems win the Sexiest-Children's-Book-Illustrator-of-the-Year-Award time and time again (not a huge feat in a field dominated by the likes of deceased fellows like William Steig) but he's a hoot to boot. When I had the chance to see Mr. Willems speak at Book Fest in New York City, the topic of conversation during the question and answer session turned invariably to his most popular creation of them all: The pigeon. The pigeon is our Id. He's that voice that screams loudly in your head whenever someone denies you something you want, no matter how unreasonable it might be. Mr. Willems mentioned at one point that he's been receiving potential pigeon titles for his books over the years. My personal favorite? Don't Let the Pigeon Audit Your Neighbor. That book has yet to come out (can't you just see him screaming out, "LET ME SEE YOUR W-2 FORMS!!!, in a feathery rage?) but something just as good has. "Don't Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late!" is already bound to join the ranks of such other bedtime classics as "10 Minutes to Bedtime", by Peggy Rathmann and Lauren Child's, "I Am Not Sleepy and I Will Not Go To Bed" in the pantheon of sleepy-time literature.
Okay, you know the drill. Here's Mr. Bus Driver from "Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus", who apparently lives with this difficult bird. Wearing classic nightcap and carrying a candle (candles and nightcaps never go out of style) he urges the reader not to let the pigeon stay up late while he goes to brush his teeth. But the pigeon knows what to expect and he comes out swinging with a, "First of all, I'm not even tired!". When that doesn't work he has a whole list of carefully prepared excuses for not going to bed. My personal favorite? The bird sits pensively on the ground, his wings clasped in front and his eyes heavenward as he says, "We could count the stars!". Unfortunately for him, it is clear that he's yawning quite a bit. So here comes the arsenal of excuses! Everything from "Can I have a glass of water?" to "My bunny wants to stay up too! You can't say `No' to a bunny, can you?". Just the same, arguing can be tiring work. By the end the pigeon is asleep and the bus driver is congratulating you on your "great work".
I've never known the backgrounds in a pigeon book to be quite as important as they are here. At the beginning of the story they're all pinks and lemons. Then, as the night comes on, the pigeon collapses in exhaustion and it becomes blues, navys, and dark violets. Of course, there's a world of different between telling the pigeon "NO!" when he wants to drive a bus and telling the pigeon "NO!" when he wants to stay up late. For some reason it feels like the reader has a lot less control over the situation. In his first book the pigeon was asking permission (apparently hopping on the bus and hitting the gas was just not an option). In this book you almost wonder why he's bothering to debate his case. I mean, he's up isn't he? It's not as if the reader can grab him and stuff him in a bed (though I envision plenty of interactive CD-ROM games that the merchandizing-friendly Willems might do well to consider).
Willems once said that the pigeon makes an appearance in every book he does (with the possible exception of "Time To Pee" and "Time to Say Please"). How apt then that in this particular book the cameo is by fellow Willems award-winning character Knuffle Bunny. Though never mentioned by name, KB becomes the pigeon's faithful bedtime buddy. The last image in the book is of fowl and bunny chowing down in a dream of a hillside of hot dogs. Perhaps this is the hot dog party alluded to earlier in the book. Willems makes the mighty odd choice of giving Knuffle Bunny teeth in this picture, giving the normally floppity and expressionless stuffed animal an almost feral expression. It's an odd choice, to say the least.
I, for one, was pleased at the pigeon's return to form. Not that I had anything against his board books or "The Pigeon Eats a Hot Dog". I just felt he was at his strongest when he was at his worst. And the worst is in full flower with "Don't Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late", I can tell you. One person I showed this book to was not pleased at all with this latest pigeon escapade, of course. To her mind, the pigeon has sold out. He's just doing the same darned thing he did before, but with a slightly different background. I disagree. I see this book as a second coming of a sort. It's funny, it's silly, and it subtly combines the author's trademark child-friendly/adult friendly humor. Also, if you object to this book then you have probably never encountered a teary five-year-old who has just been informed that ALL the pigeon books are currently checked out of the library. THAT'S fun! Is there a need for this book? There is always a need for a new pigeon book. You may fear that your tots will learn new excuses for avoiding beddy-bye from this sneaky avian, but even they can't help but notice that in the end bedtime always wins out. Consider this a must-have of the finest pedigree.