Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Monday, August 19, 2019

Learning And Laughter And Schools

Even seasoned students, teachers and parents will attest to feeling partly excited and partly anxious about the first day of school in any given year.  For those gals and guys attending for the first time, every emotion is super-charged.  They are going from the familiar to the unknown.  This might not only be their first day at school, but they might be living in a completely new community with no chance of seeing any friends.

Upon their arrival we welcome all of them equally.  We create a classroom community of mutual respect, compassion and support.  We learn to laugh together with abandon for this is the song which soothes souls.  Two recent book releases are fine, fine selections in creating an atmosphere of mutual joy and boosting creativity.  The first, The Pigeon HAS to Go to School! (Disney Hyperion, July 2, 2019) written and illustrated by Mo Willems brings back a character guaranteed to elevate the merriment of everyone.  This bird knows how to connect with every reader.


Pigeon frantically calls out to readers because he knows once the words of the title are spoken, he's doomed to go to school.  He simply does not understand why he has to go to school.  He's certain he can't be taught anything new.  He challenges readers to test his knowledge skills. Um . . .

He reminds anyone who will listen he is not a morning person.  He longs to be too young to go to school.  He is worried about not liking school at ALL!  He's working himself into a major panic when he wonders if the teacher will even like pigeons.

Now he's dramatically tense about learning more than he's ever had to know.  Will his brain be able to retain it all?  What will happen if he learns too much?

True to form, Pigeon finally gets to the truth of all his anxiety.  It's the newness of it all.  Every single thing bothering him comes pouring out.  He then presents a solution to these stressors.  He demands there be a place to practice before having to go to school.  As he lists the attributes of this place, one thing become abundantly clear.  He's just described school.  When his next question is answered by the appearance of a vehicle, nothing is going to stop this bird from going to school.

Without a doubt Mo Willems is a master of comic pacing; his page turns and punctuation are perfection.  He also has the inside scoop on the commonality in the hearts of his audience.  He begins with words a lot of students express; completely engaging us with Pigeon's perspective and personal conversation.

Pigeon's list of excuses is particularly hilarious because at one time or another, we've uttered them or heard them spoken.  The exaggerated theatrics and roller coaster emotional line of thinking has us hooked on the narrative until the over-the-top witty conclusion.  Here is a passage.

I wish
I was 
a little 

A little-itty-bitty
baby-waybie pigeon!

Just as he did with his 2004 Caldecott Honor winning introduction to this bird, Don't Let the Pigeon Drove the Bus! and the five companion titles, Mo Willems sets the stage with the title in a speech bubble on the front of the book case and Pigeon, with his facial expression and body posture, starts the story visually.  To the left, on the back, Pigeon peeks from the left side stating:

I already know how to spel!

On the opening endpapers are nine empty school desks on a pale yellow background.  Each of the chairs for the desks are a different color.  An assortment of birds including Duckling and Pigeon fill those desks on the closing endpapers.  Pigeon appears to be raising his wing to speak.

Larger than life, a panic-stricken Pigeon is flapping his wings, in a close-up to readers, on the verso and title pages.  Throughout the narrative the background colors on full-page or double-page pictures alternate between shades of blue, green, brown, orange, pink, purple and gray.  Portions of the text are hand-lettered by Mo Willems.

To accentuate an emotion Pigeon increases and decreases in size.  He is very small on the page when we hear him say he is scared.  As the speed of his statements become faster and more vital, the images are grouped in eight panels.  There are two illustrations without words, but we have no doubt about what the Pigeon is feeling.

One of my many favorite illustrations is on a single page.  Pigeon is lamenting the fact there is a lot to learn.  On a light brown background, he is seated.  He is learning back in a dramatic pose.  His mouth is open with his tongue out and his eyes are rolled for effect.

The laughter factor is high in this new bird-tastic episode, The Pigeon HAS to Go to School! written and illustrated by Mo Willems.  As readers giggle and grin listening to Pigeon, they know they have a friend who is expressing exactly what many of them are feeling.  Make sure you include this wonderful title in your read aloud choices as well as giving it a place in your professional and personal collections.

To learn more about Mo Willems and his other work, please follow the links attached to his name to access his website and blog. Mo Willems/Pigeon has an account on Twitter. The Pigeon has a website, here.  You'll love the video with children talking in response to the Pigeon about going to school. At the publisher's website is a series of activity sheets.  The cover reveal and post for this title is at Publishers Weekly.  An article about this book appears in the Wall Street Journal.

The second book is a companion title to two previous inventive publications, If I Built a Car and If I Built a House.  If I Built a School (Dial Books For Young Readers, August 13, 2019) written and illustrated by Chris Van Dusen takes imagining the ideal space for learning to new heights.  Teachers, gals and guys will flock to this school 365 days a year and adults will want to start their education all over again.

Jack, on the playground, said to Miss Jane,
This school is OK, but it's pitifully plain.

If Jack were the designer everything would change.  As he and Miss Jane explore HIS school they are greeted by a passel of puppies.  Large animals found in a zoo like an elephant, camel, giraffe, zebra, panda and antelope are part of the welcoming crew.  Seated in a shuttle, a glass tube looping around and around takes them to a class with a push of a numerical button.

The classrooms are perched like flowers on stalks with ceilings that open to let in the sun.  Miss Jane is asked to go to the front of her place; writing with a stylus her words appear as if written on an invisible board.  Students are seated at hover desks, looking like carnival bumper cars.  (Is this fun or what?)

Visiting the library is an entirely new adventure with each and every book bending reality.  Opening them leads to whatever is inside popping to the outside.  Off to the gym, readers, Miss Jane and Jack go, with a skydiving wind tunnel plus other amazing opportunities to enjoy.  If you're hungry, lunch is quite a treat with a special robot chef named Pete.  Whatever delicious meal you order, he delivers.

As if everything has not been utterly splendid thus far, recess on this playground raises the bar.  Can you see the zip lines or the three-story high slide?  Or how about taking some horses for a ride?  In the afternoon art, music or science is definitely focused on the future.  Normal school buses are a thing of the past with field trips literally out of this world.  Jack's School is sensational.

As soon as Jack says:

It's nothing at all like the school I have planned,

you know author Chris Van Dusen is going to have his protagonist revealing how his brilliant brain can construct a space everyone, especially students, will adore.  For his four-to-eight-line, playful, poetic and first-person narrative, every two lines rhyme, creating expectations in readers and listeners alike.  We find ourselves in tune with the cadence as one revelation after another unfolds, until Jack brings us full circle speaking what we all know to be true about learning.  Here is a passage.

It's off to the gym, and this place is so cool!
Around it, please note my perimeter pool.
The pool's a deep oval that everyone likes---
You race underwater on submarine bikes!
Up there is my trampoline basketball court.
It's partly a bounce house and partly a sport. . . .

The bright, partly pastel and partly primary, colors shown on the matching and open dust jacket and book case, are a signature choice used by illustrator Chris Van Dusen.  His details have a retro style to them, even though they propose futuristic designs through his main character.  By the expressions and body language on Miss Jane, Jack and his pooch pal, and the visible classrooms, our anticipation grows.

To the left, on the back, the background is divided by a line reaching from the upper, left-hand corner to the lower, right-hand corner.  On the right is the light teal hue and on the left is the pale yellow.  In the center is Jack's dog sitting up on a stack of books, one paw lifted and balancing an apple on his nose.  A pencil is between his ears.

On the opening and closing endpapers readers are in for an architectural spectacle in green and white.  On the first set are twelve possible school plans including but certainly not limited to a moon school, a school that walks to you, a treehouse school or a fantastic underwater school.  Commentary is written in Jack's handwriting.  On the back is My School by Jack drawn in all its fabulous glory with loads of labels.

These illustrations rendered

with gouache on cold press illustration board

span single pages with text on the opposite page or two pages with text blended into the image.  Sometimes we are given a panoramic view of an area and other times we are close to the action.  Readers will be stopping at every page turn to note the details; one of the pooch pals only has two legs and has wheels harnessed to his back, there is a robot dog, there are trees growing inside the school, the teacher's desk has an aquarium in it and all the students' desks have lamps on them.

One of my many favorite pictures takes place in the library.  Sky with puffy clouds can be seen through the ceiling and along the sides.  Book-filled shelves are lined up on the far left and we can see more shelving on the right along a wall of windows.  Closer to us is Jack seated at a table.  On the left, his canine companion has his paws up on the table looking at what popped out of Jack's open book.  His book is Jack and the Beanstalk.  A giant stalk extends from the book on the left to the top of the right-hand side with fairytale Jack astride the beanstalk.  Miss Jane is astonished.  Another student's open book, which is this book, shows a wondrous mode of travel shooting upward.

Students, teachers and parents will be eager to attend this institution of education built by Jack in If I Built a School written and illustrated by Chris Van Dusen.  You can be sure readers will be ready to design their own special kind of school inspired by the words and illustrations of this author/illustrator and his one-of-a-kind character, Jack.  I highly recommend this title for your personal and professional collections.

To learn more about Chris Van Dusen and his other work, please visit his website and blog by following the links attached to his name.  Chris Van Dusen does have an account on Twitter but it appears he is more active on his Instagram account.  At the publisher's website you can view the title page.  You'll find this interview with Chris Van Dusen at Art Of The Picture Book several years ago very interesting.  Chris Van Dusen writes a post at the Nerdy Book Club to describe how this book evolved.

You might want to add Bunny's Book Club Goes To School,  TrumanThe King of Kindergarten, Butterflies On The First Day of School, Mae's First Day Of School, All Are Welcome,  The Day You BeginWe Don't Eat Our Classmates, Super Saurus Saves Kindergarten, or Second Grade Holdout and First Grade Dropout to your selections.   

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