‘The Pigeon HAS To Go to School’ Is a Manic and Brilliant Toddler Primer For Pre-School

Mo Willems knocks it out of the park again, in perhaps his best Pigeon book yet.

by Mark Beazley
The Mo Willems Studio

The latest adventure of the most famous cranky bird in all of the children’s literature is perhaps the best. If you haven’t run out and snagged a copy of the new Mo Willems opus; The Pigeon HAS to Go to School, you should. And if you’re unfamiliar with the brilliance of the Willems pigeon here’s the score: This hilarious bird is the picture book presentation of your toddler’s inner psyche, which is why the latest book is so damn genius.

One of the unexpected side benefits of my becoming a parent has been my introduction to the brilliantly manic storybook universe of writer and illustrator Mo Willems. I think my wife and I first stumbled across Willems’ work during one of our early excursions to a neighborhood bookstore in the first year our son was born. Willems started out as an Emmy Award-winning writer and animator for Sesame Street for almost a decade before striking out on his own in 2003 with the Caldecott Honor-winning Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus.

My son absolutely adores another of Willems’ creations, Elephant and Piggie, which are admittedly fantastic. But I’m partial to the cranky Pigeon. Speaking directly to the reader, the unhinged Pigeon engages your child directly and makes you an active participant in the telling of the story. He’s like Grover in The Monster at the End of This Book, but nuttier. Like all of his books, a Mo Willems illustration is always deceptively sparse – simple figures on largely empty backgrounds – but their dynamism gives the characters vast emotional range. One panel the Pigeon is coyly coaxing you to let him drive the bus by offering to be your best friend. Another he scowls defiantly with wings crossed over his chest.

If you’re unfamiliar, the series of the Pigeon’s adventures follow a pattern wherein the titular bird freaks out bombastically before coming to a realization or emotional resolution. (Basically, in these books, Pigeon is code for “toddler.”) In The Pigeon Needs a Bath! the Pigeon refuses to acknowledge just how filthy and in dire need of cleaning he is until the literal flies buzzing around him tell him he smells. That ultimately prompts him into the tub where he discovers he loves taking baths.

In the latest adventure — published last week by Hyperion Books — it turns out that: The Pigeon HAS to Go to School. Naturally, he doesn’t want to go to school and comes up with every excuse imaginable why he shouldn’t have to.

The Pigeon tries to prove to the reader he already knows everything that school could possibly teach him, demanding that you ask him a question, any question. Not quite as prepared as he thinks he is, he runs through a flurry of emotions – anger, embarrassment, wistfulness, anxiety, and outright fear. His outbursts touch on everything from the absurd “If I learn too much, my head might pop off,” to the genuine worry of wondering just what happens at that mystical, magical place “school.” That unfolds in a heart-wrenching sequence of pages where the Pigeon reveals he’s scared as his figure shrinks in size to a tiny, thin version of himself. Ultimately he comes to accept that his fears are understandable but manageable and going to school may have its own advantages. This is helpful. Not just for kids, but literally anyone who feels like they can’t learn anything new.

Willems frequently peppers his books with Easter eggs references to his other works and genius levels of self-mockery that may slip by in a quick read. Knuffle Bunny, another of his creations makes a cameo as a zipper tag on the Pigeon’s backpack. The Pigeon frequently sneaks his way into the Elephant and Piggie books. Be sure to look closely at and read aloud the copyright and Library of Congress information on the title page spread. Just do it.

The Pigeon HAS To Go to School is out now at bookstores or for sale online. There’s also a chance it’s at your local library. Just ask.