Don’t Let The Pigeon Stay Up Late
Written and Illustrated by Mo Willems
Hyperion Books, New York, 2006
ISBN 978 078683746 5
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At the beginning – in fact, on the very title page – of Don’ t Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late! the readers are asked by nameless man to do him a favor and “don’t let the Pigeon stay up late!” The rest of the book is written in the voice of the pigeon, listing excuses and arguing as to why he should be allowed to stay up, until he finally falls asleep and the man returns to thank us. The pigeon “himself” is genderless – there are no pronouns used in the book to refer to him. I use ‘him’ here as a personal decision.
The book’s format is a simple merging of words and pictures, as every piece of writing is enclosed by a speech bubble pointing to a character’s (usually the Pigeon’s) mouth. The page layouts usually consist of no more than the pigeon, who is simply drawn with outlines and flat coloring, and his dialogue. This gives space for him to have a full range of expressions, that animate the whole of his body.
The Pigeon plays out a scene of conflict between child and adults – the argument over bedtime – which is nearly universally familiar. Unlike the concept of the original Pigeon book – Don’t Let the Pigeon Ride the Bus (2004 Caldecott honors) – going to bed is a daily occurrence for children, and the struggle between a child who doesn’t want to sleep quite yet and an adult who insists on bedtime anyway is a common part of caregiver/child relationships. Don’t Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late! casts the Pigeon – a child in a fur coat (or feathered in this case) in the role of a wilful child, and the child reading the book as the adult. When read by an adult to the child, the conversational first-to-second person style further casts the reader in the child role, effectively reversing the usual roles. Children have the opportunity to play at being ‘mother’, to gain feelings of control and express a role that’s unobtainable to them in every day life, where scolding younger siblings, for example, may be discouraged. By casting children in the ‘adult’ role, Willems gives them the opportunity to play out this control. The use of constant questioning by the Pigeon, directly addressing the reader, further lets the children reading the book to tell him “No!”: a favorite word for young threes, who are experimenting with their own powers of independence.
Seeing the Pigeon trying to stay up late lets children know that they aren’t alone in their struggles, and gives them the opportunity to place the blame for ‘bad’ behavior on another person – the Pigeon, just as children of this age might invent an imaginary friend. . Not being human, the Pigeon is readable as no race or nationality, and being genderless, “he” is interchangeable with any and all children who have had this power struggle.
The layout of the pages, while mostly repetitive and comfortable, work to add a layer of dynamism to the book. On one page, the Pigeon is fully visible, dancing wildly to show how not-tired he is, on the next, he is so close to the reader that only his head, neck and one wing is visible, as he whispers conspiratorially. He shrugs, folds his wings and yawns just like a human, in highly expressive pictures that follow his highly active nature. Sometimes, a double page spread is used to accommodate giant text for emphasis – a desperate cry of “I’M NOT TIRED” and later a huge yawn are stretched across the page. On another double page spread, the pages are divided into four, making eight quarter-sized panels each with the familiar pattern of smaller pigeon and smaller text, in a way that speeds up the pace and adds to the Pigeon’s increased desperate pleas. Willems therefore avoids monotony, and strikes a balance between familiar repetition and interesting dynamism.
Despite the content matter, this is not a suitable book for bedtime, because it’s full of a restless energy, and because it encourages children to talk back to the book: “No!” It is, however, a great book for reading to a group of children if they’re encouraged to chorus back to the pigeon in a social manner to encourage interaction with the book.
The Pigeon is the star of six different books by Mo Willems, as well as puzzles, games and a cartoon series (although his voice in that is decidedly male). My own experience suggests that children of this are drawn to familiar characters, because there’s a feeling of security in knowing what to expect. While Don’t Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late is the most relatable in terms of lived experiences, the other books combine to give a sense of continuity between multiple books, that culminates in added appeal for each book.
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