The Best Mo Willems Book You Haven’t Read

Elizabeth Bluemle -- April 12th, 2013

It’s hard to imagine a Mo Willems title sneaking under the radar, but somehow, one of my all-time favorite Willems book is also one of his least well-known, at least to customers at the bookstore. At least, until I get through with them.

Hooray for Amanda & Her Alligator! (HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray) is a charming, generous-spirited book of “6 1/2 stories about 2 surprising friends”—namely, a bright-eyed, impatient, funny little stuffed alligator and his human, a wry girl named Amanda. A literary and thematic heir to the George and Martha picture books by James Marshall, Hooray…! has mini-chapters, each of which manages to address an everyday concern of children (having a hard time waiting, being less skilled than someone else, feeling jealous or insecure, etc.) in a very light-hearted and—even more importantly—supremely light-handed manner. With chapters like “A Surprising Surprise,” “An Un-Surprising Surprise,” Chapter 2 1/2: An Extra Surprise,” the emphasis is on delight.

This book is an all-time great read-aloud for ages four to ten. I can’t count the number of times I’ve read it to families in the store, though I can count on one hand the number of times someone has heard or read it and then not bought a copy; it’s just that appealing.

Willems really understands what galvanizes young children, both as readers and as characters. Alligator is irrepressible, but with an occasional sensitivity peeking out from underneath his toddler brio. Alligator expresses anxiety by fiddling with his tail; it’s the sweetest, simplest little gesture. and reveals a world of worry without Willems ever having to say more than simply “He fiddled with his tail.” Whether he’s waiting impatiently for Amanda to come home and play with him, pouncing on her head while she’s reading a library book (the titles of the books Amanda reads throughout are fantastic), or trying to snub an unwanted visitor, Alligator’s an expressive critter. His full-body frowns or bouncy joy come across in just a few lines on the page; so many of his expressions and actions make readers laugh out loud.

To my mind, Hooray for Amanda & Her Alligator! is about as perfect as picture books come — its text and art are lively, deft, funny, touching, and smart. Everything is done so economically here, using just the right words and a few smart strokes of the pen to convey the maximum humor and heart. I use this book with my picture-book writing students because it accomplishes so much with so deceptively little. A writer on children’s literature, Jerry Griswold, talks about five common elements of classic children’s stories in his book, Feeling Like a Kid: the elements are snugness, scariness, smallness, lightness, and aliveness. Hooray for Amanda and Her Alligator! has all of these and one more: timelessness.