11 November 2008
One of the nominees for the Cybils Award in the Easy Reader category is this funny offering by Sesame Street scribe turned children's book legend, Mo Willems. Willems was the recipient of the 2008 Theodore Geisel Award for There is a Bird On Your Head, which also features Gerald Elephant and Piggie. In "Surprise", Gerald and Piggie observe a squirrel playing a hide and seek trick on a friend, which they decide to duplicate when they see how much fun the squirrels had. However, the game goes awry because the two friends are so good at hiding from each other (think of a well-orchestrated Marx Brothers routine.) Gerald beings to imagine outlandish disasters which may have befallen Piggie, and Piggie assumes that Gerald has given up on finding her and headed off to lunch. The true surprise comes when they both emerge from behind the same rock and scare the tuna salad out of each other (to quote another Willems' creation, Leonardo the Terrible Monster.)
Willems has taken the same winning combination that he utilizes in his picture books--memorable characters, silly humor, simple wisdom, boundless enthusiasm--and applied it to the easy reader format. But perhaps his greatest achievement here is his ability to take the limitations of the easy reader format and turn them into narrative strengths. The vocabulary in this book is limited, basic, and often repeated. Yet with a well placed exclamation point, bold typeface, or over sized font, the emotion behind the words becomes evident to the young reader. The color-coordinated speech bubbles keep the dialog flowing without the cumbersome interruptions of "Elephant said" or "Piggie said" and also helps to clearly indicate which character is speaking when the action gets frenetic (as it often does!) Piggie and Gerald themselves are extraordinarily expressive characters and go a long way in providing visual clues to the reader, despite the fact that they are often the only images on the page.
At the heart of "Surprise", as with all the Elephant & Piggie books, is the friendship of the two main characters. The episodic nature of the stories keeps the reader focused on the specific moment in time in which Elephant and Piggie are discovering something about their relationship and their value of each other. In "Surprise" they learn that prefabricated fun is not necessarily as good as spontaneous joy--but certainly as unpredictable.