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Mo WIllens Goes Hi-Tech (Sort of)
on December 30, 2008
Mo Willems is one of my favorite kids' authors, mostly for his simply drawn yet totally on-target books such as the Pigeon series ("Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus") and those featuring the (unlikely) pair of Elephant and Piggie. Willems has an eye for subtle humor, and a pair of sentences or a squiggle here or there convey a great deal of (very funny) information.
Therefore, the Knuffle Bunny "series" (there are now two of them, the first won the Caldecott) represents a bit of a departure. Instead of uncluttered animal drawings against plain background, Willems places computer-aided characters against photos of urban surroundings. For example, on page 3, Willems superimposes wide-eyed, excited Trixie and her orangy-haired Dad on a sidewalk. The sidewalk is part of a photo that includes a very 50's looking black and white photo of the "Clever Barber Shop." The plot begins happily enough:
"Trixie was excited because she was taking her one-of-a-kind Knuffle Bunny someplace very special ... [turn the page] school!"
More black and white photos appear, enlivened by Willems' superimposed, computer-aided drawings of teachers, parents, and students. The merging of photo and drawing is both appealing and skillful. Willems's bright colors and mastery of physical expression ensure that the photos are always subordinate to his computer colored hand drawings (well, except in one magnificent two-page photo spread).
The book is also more talky than the simpler Willlems' fare. Here, Trixie and her very special Knuffle Bunny meet another girl, Sonja, who also has a Knuffle Bunny! Imagine wearing the same new clothes to a wedding and discovering someone wearing the same outfit: Trixie's mortification must feel 10 times worse! They fight and squabble (including a wonderful scene in which they disagree whether the "K" in "Knuffle" is silent) until the teacher takes both bunnies away.
Fast forward to night time, and Trixie somehow KNOWS that the two Bunnies got mixed up. The bunnies may look alike, but Willems seems to suggest that kids have a cerrtain bond with their special playthings, and can sense when a switcheroo has happened. Apparently, Sonja senses this too, for her dad calls Trixie's just as the latter is about to call. After a tense exchange, both girls are happy again, and they forge a strong friendship based on their mutual understanding of what it means to lose a Knuffle Bunny!
This is a more complex book than I've come to expect, and it takes a different kind of reading. His other books are straightforward and unapologetically silly, these have some serious feelings behind them. There's not as much humor, but the story-telling skill is not at all diminished--it's just more subtle. The interactions between husband and wife over whether he should get up at 2:30 am to call Sonja's family (of course he will!), the facial expressions that show dismay, relief, tension, friendship and mutual Knuffle Bunny love, all these show Willems' consummate skill as illustrator and author.
Although this is a larger-formatted book, with more words, and a more complex plot, I think that Knuffle Bunny Too is more suitable to family reading than to the classroom. It has a certain intimacy of emotion that may best be acknowledged and shared in a small group. While I have a bias towards Willems' other books, Knuffle Bunnny Too encompasses a wide range of emotions, and the creative illustrations are new and exciting.