Somewhere in the guidelines to writing an unforgettable kids’ book there must be a rule stipulating that at least one animal — stuffed, real, or made-up — be included, and that his name be funny. For me Lowly Worm is the character I will always remember, but for a new generation of kids (particularly those growing up in Brooklyn), it will most definitely be Knuffle Bunny.
The stuffed rabbit is the invention of Park Slope writer and illustrator Mo Willems, who has a stable of animals in his repertoire, like Edwina, The Dinosaur That Didn’t Know She Was Extinct and his ever-expanding Pigeon series including Don’t Let The Pigeon Drive The Bus!, The Pigeon Finds A Hot Dog!, and The Pigeon Has Feelings Too!
Many of his books share a similar, true-to-life theme of things going wrong or not getting what you want. (Spoiler: the Pigeon never gets to drive the bus.) But the Knuffle Bunny books are even more lifelike, because the backgrounds of every page are sepia-toned photographs of Brownstone Brooklyn streets, laundromats, and Prospect Park, onto which the cartoon characters — Trixie, her bunny, and parents — are drawn.
They’re also the most autobiographical. “The real Trixie just started first grade and to start the year off her teacher read both Knuffle Bunny and and Knuffle Bunny Too to her class,” Willems recounted over email. “After the reading, Trixieâ€™s teacher turned to her and asked, ‘Trixie, is this a true story?’ Trixie gave it a momentâ€™s thought, then replied, ‘Y’know, weâ€™re really trying to get away from that questionâ€¦’ Thereâ€™s not much I can say to top that, but Iâ€™d be remiss not mentioning that every detail in those books are true. Except, of course, the parts I made up…”
In both Knuffle Bunny and Knuffle Bunny Too, which recently came out, and which Willems will be reading from tonight in Greenpoint, the Bunny goes missing, and dad (who in the first, Caldecott-honored book, is partly to blame) must set out to retrieve it.
“Trixie’s daddy tried to explain what ‘2:30 a.m.’ means,” writes Willems in the second book, but it falls on deaf ears, so he goes out into the night for it across a deserted, well-lit Grand Army Plaza that looks so much more beautiful in the book than in real life. “As I worked with the pictures, I discovered that, unlike my forgiving eye, they did not edit out the ugliness of my neighborhood. Consequently, I had to spend quite a bit of time digitally removing air-conditioners, trash, and garbage cans, so that the pictures could have the emotional truth of my personal experience,” explained Willems.
He plays with the backgrounds further by adding the Pigeon into one scene in each Bunny book, but fans will be happy to hear that the bird has a new book of his own coming. “We’re only telling the first four words of the title: The Pigeon Wants. Hopefully, kids all over the country will create their own versions of what they think the Pigeon wants, so that when the actual title is revealed on April 1, 2008, kids everywhere will be disappointed.”
Sent by Nicole. Images by Mo Willems, courtesy Hyperion Books for Children.