Leveraging the Elephant & Piggie brand, Mo Willems has extended the reach of the magical spell that he has cast over emergent readers with Elephant & Piggie Like Reading. The first two entries–WE ARE GROWING by Laurie Keller and THE COOKIE FIASCO by Dan Santat–were published this past year, and while I think very highly of THE THANK YOU BOOK, these books are for a slightly more advanced audience and both have a lot to recommend themselves to the Newbery committee as well. Indeed, I think you can build cases for each book in terms of plot, style, and theme as being among the most distinguished books for children, especially when you take the age of the very young audience into consideration. Let’s take a closer look, shall we?
Both of these books feature a story within a story: Gerald and Piggie introduce each book and then discuss it briefly afterward; it’s a nice bit of intertextuality in addition to earning bonus points for plot. (Some people will want to credit this to Mo Willems, but it really doesn’t matter since the award goes to the book; the ALSC office can figure out afterwards who gets what.)
The plot-character arcs in these books are so well delineated, but each has a distinct variation. For example, note that the central problem in THE COOKIE FIASCO is identified very early on page 5–“SOMEONE WILL NOT GET A COOKIE!” while its withheld from the reader in WE ARE GROWING clear until page 27–“I do not know WHAT I am!” Characters are well drawn (given the pithy text) and their desires and actions drive the plot forward in believable ways.
The theme of THE COOKIE FIASCO is sharing, a very popular one, but the addition of the math element (whether you see it as a division problem or a least common denominator problem with fractions) elevates it to another level. But Betsy Bird beat me to this, writing at length about it here. I also love how the story extends itself with the cow bringing three glasses of milk on the last page. And I think it goes beyond math to argument and logic. They discuss combining the squirrels’ claims to the cookies, eliminating the alligator’s claim, and allocating the cookies based on proportion.
WE ARE GROWING, on the other hand, has a theme that is entirely different, but also eternally relevant. Whether it’s adolescents whose bodies are not keeping up with their peers or college graduates who still have no idea what they want to do with their lives, I think we can all relate to the feeling of being a work-in-progress.
Naming the protagonist Walt (ostensibly a literary allusion to Walt Whitman’s LEAVES OF GRASS) is a nice touch, and I like the integration of the lesson on superlatives.
I’ll admit that I was initially drawn to WE ARE GROWING more because of its humor, but I’ve come to appreciate THE COOKIE FIASCO just as much. In case you’d like to look at these books through some different lenses. Patrick Gall reviewed these books for Calling Caldecott here, while Amy Seto Forester reviews them here for Guessing Geisel.