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4 1/2 To Have and Have Not
on February 24, 2005
A pigeon about to joyously eat a hot dog is constantly interrupted by a young duck who manages to upset his meal plans. The duckling--all big-eyed charm and flirtation-repeatedly insinuates himself into the situation with "innocent" comments and questions just when the pigeon is about to take the first bite:
"I've never had a hot dog before...
What do they taste like?"
The pigeon enthusiastically describes the exquisite nature of hot dogs, but then draws back, suspicious of the duckling's true motives, and feeling trapped by his own gusto. Then, just when he's about to eat that hot dog again, the duck asks, "Would you say it tastes like chicken?"
The baffled, frustrated pigeon looks out from the page and addresses the audience directly: "Can you believe this guy?" Finally, overcome by the duck's seeming innocence but persistent curiosity, he goes completely wild, yelling, pacing, trying to persuade himself that the hot dog is his too eat, but aware that his "guest" will not leave him alone. The two birds finally do share the hot dog, although the duckling belies his supposed naiveté with his final comment: "Hmmm...needs mustard."
Although very simple, the story has its roots in the classic comedy routines of vaudeville and early television. I can picture "Ralph Kramden" (in the pigeon role, of course) and "Ed Norton" in a similar setup. A more recent example of this patter is in the movie "Diner," when the Paul Reiser character asks without really asking for a ride home, some left-over food, etc. "Just ask the question!" shouts an exasperated Daniel Stern.
Mo Willems reinforces the simplicity of this routine through his amateur-on-purpose drawings of the two birds and the solid color backgrounds. Aside from his beak, the pigeon's head is merely two concentric circles, a large dot, a line, and some shading. As another reviewer noted, the kid-scrawl drawing is in the spirit of "Spongebob Squarepants" and primitive illustrations.
Ultimately, this book is best read aloud to very young children. Willems could have added some interesting geometric background shapes, or deepened the characterizations, but he kept it fairly plain and linear. It's up to the reader's dramatic abilities to pull out all the humor inherent in the conflict between owner and would-be owner. Willem's teasing dialogue and portrayal of the unwinding pigeon give adults plenty of comic material to work with.