Hyperion Books for Children

The ‘Elephant & Piggie’ Books Got My Child Reading Again

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I hate reading to my kids.

When I had my first child. I did it dutifully. I read him Goodnight, Moon and Sandra Boynton’s The Going to Bed Book every night for a year and a half because all the experts said to set a consistent night time routine to help with bedtime (what a lie THAT was) and you know what?

I’m done. I have four kids now and they are all picky readers.

On top of that, I bilingual homeschool my kids in Mandarin and English. I willfully chose to delay teaching them how to read and write in English because it is so much easier than Mandarin. I wanted to frontload as much Mandarin as possible so that any books they could read would match their younger interest levels. I figured it would be so much harder to teach them Mandarin later when their interests were more mature but they could only read baby books.

As can be expected, teaching my very picky kids to read in Mandarin was not easy and necessitated more work than I preferred. In particular because I, myself, am not literate. So you can imagine how annoyed I was when, after years of dutiful teaching, my daughter, then 5 or 6, didn’t want to read any of the hundreds of Chinese books we owned.

I thought I had finally arrived at the point where my kids could read independently and my girl had the temerity to refuse.

Listen.

I was big mad.

I threw adorable (expensive) picture book after picture book at her but she found them too babyish. I suggested beginning bridge books like Frog and Toad but she found them too intimidating.

And then, I put one of Mo Willems’ Elephant and Piggie books in her fussy little hands, and I guess it was the Goldilocks ratio of adorable illustrations, unexpected narrative, and absurd dialog — she was hooked.

She would force me to read her favorite passages and refuse to take no for an answer.

My daughter tore through the books (it’s a good thing I bought 16 of the 25 available) and relentlessly attempted to engage me in conversation about them. She would force me to read her favorite passages and refuse to take no for an answer. And ohhh, how she laughed.

As I found after finally reading them due to her persistence, the books were perfect. Perfect length. Perfect tone. Perfect depiction of the world and its people.

Forget Harry Potter and the Sorting Hat. Willems, a former animator for Sesame Street, and author of Knuffle Bunny and Don’t Let The Pigeon Drive The Bus (never not good advice), accurately classifies people into piggies, elephants, and perhaps squirrels.

First there is Piggie, the joyful pig who brims with enthusiasm and joie de vivre and bursts with over-the-top indignation and unwarranted optimism. Then Gerald, the cautious elephant who is practical, kind, gentle, and anxiety-prone. Willems also gives a range of supporting characters: flies, rhinos, the pigeon making a cameo, and of course the squirrels. Who can forget these eager yet perhaps not the brightest squirrels?

Elephant and Piggie books are little slices of childhood. They’re about Piggie wanting to fly and Gerald the naysaying inner voice saying she can't. Piggie getting hyped up about thanking all her friends and totally unable to come down from her hysteria. Gerald politely heaving rhino and his sister onto his trunk. Willems depicts the rush of a new toy and the sadness when it breaks. He captures jealousy over a beloved’s new friend with a sensitivity that doesn’t necessarily judge anyone for their feelings.

Willems recreates all these real (and random) moments in the life of a child (and let’s face it, adults, too) with a tenderness that his readers crave and deserve. He gives Piggie and Elephant rich emotional lives, which are reflected in the ways they grapple with the big questions (like why share? And when?). The books often peak with someone yelling uncontrollably.

Piggie is the more childish of the two, but Elephant is never totally sure about things either. Every book, with its punchy exclamations and confused conversations, sees my kids flip through faster and faster to find out what is going on. As with every day of their short lives, there are surprises. And it’s important that my kids are reading along. Their revelations are Piggie and Gerald’s revelations. The books run on confusion: Elephant and Piggie are often, for all intents and purposes, speaking different languages until a breakthrough occurs in the penultimate moments of the book. What more could I say about my own attempts to foist the books I like onto my children?

It’s also OK for kids to want to find their own books to love.

The best part is all these insights are hidden in the absurd moments that make up a life. After all, isn’t the goal of every fiction writer to tell truths via well-written lies? Willems lies like the best of liars.

All the science and studies and parenting articles tell us we should read and read a lot to our children because it is good for their brains. Reading helps our kids learn language, follow storylines, develop a sense of narrative continuity, connect synapses, and is also organic and free range and cures all sorts of societal ills. But it’s also OK for kids to want to find their own books to love.

Prior to having children, I dreamt of the books I would read aloud to my future spawn. I would prime them to love fantasy by reading Lord of the Rings and The Black Cauldron and The Dark Is Rising before bedtime. I even had the brilliant idea of making my husband do it so that I could cultivate a love of my favorite stories in my children at the same time I introduced culture to my illiterate spouse.

Now I fantasize about my kids finally hitting the age where they can peruse my favorites by themselves. I yearn for the day I can casually chuck a 3-inch thick fantasy novel at them and then squee with them a few days later about the characters and plot.

Most importantly, my daughter fulfilled two of my deepest desires after reading Elephant and Piggie. I got to share in the wonder of story with my best girl as well as ensure she no longer required me to read to her ever again.

If that’s not winning, I don’t know what is.