All right, I have a confession to make. For all that I insist to anyone who will listen that comics, graphic novels, and sequential art in general should be taken more seriously as adult reading fare, there’s nothing I like more than finding a truly fun children’s picture book. Enter Mo Willems, who makes some of the most simple-seeming examples of the genre, as well as some of the best. And the real secret? He makes his characters talk with word balloons, which makes them not only excellent children’s books, but also excellent comics. Sure, each panel has its own page, but comics they are. Such is the case with his latest entry in his long-running Elephant and Piggie series, Listen to my Trumpet!
For those who may not be familiar with the characters, the books star the dyad of the brash, impulsive, and emotional Piggie and her careful, thoughtful, sedate best friend Elephant Gerald. Often the story hinges on Piggie’s impulsiveness causing some conflict and Gerald calming her down and helping her out of it. Listen to My Trumpet! takes that theme and shows how much you can do with it. This time around Piggie is very excited to show Gerald her trumpet and what she can make it do. So the reader is then treated to page after page of Piggie coaxing louder and odder sounds out of her trumpet. Young readers will giggle at the horrified expressions on Gerald’s face as well as the contortions of Piggie as she blows. The dilemma? After the performance is over, how does Gerald tell Piggie that the sounds she is making are anything but music without hurting her feelings?
As usual, Willems provides a unique and entertaining solution to the problem, using his characteristic sense of humor and originality. I imagine that these two friends are fun to write about and Willems probably already has loads more simple situations to draw that both test and prove their friendship.
But just as much as I appreciate his writing, I also am a fan of the deceptively simple art. Both Elephant and Piggie are drawn only in outline with no shading, using simple shapes. Standing on two legs like humans, their figures look to be drawn with either a plain lead or charcoal pencil and then colored with a flat colors against no background at all. The effect is that of a child’s own drawings, creating familiarity. But it is incredibly hard to do drawings like these well without looking amateurish. The simple design of the characters invites the reader in.
Willems also thoughtfully indicates each friend’s nature through their actions. Piggie gallivants around, jumping around the page with lots of action lines. Gerald’s face shows his caution as he carefully sits on the small stool Piggie gives him for her performance, as well as multiple expressions of uncertainty as he struggles to tell her the bad news. This subtlety is the work of an expert illustrator, even when purposefully drawing in a childlike manner. Again, much harder than it looks.
Listen to My Trumpet! could be shelved either with the juvenile graphic novels or probably better with the other early reader books, such as those of Dr. Seuss, the Berenstains, and similar works. There it will easily hold its own with not only the rest of Willems’s own books, but with those classics, as well.