September 2005

A monster who doesn’t measure up

By Mo Willems
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Author and illustrator Mo Willems is superb at plotting small stories with big hearts, creating simple drawings that come to life in laugh-out-loud funny, yet soulful, picture books. He's done it before with Caldecott Honor-winning Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus and Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale, among others. Now he does it again with Leonardo the Terrible Monster. Willems has designed an oversized book, all the better to emphasize how small Leonardo is he takes up just a bit of each page. This monster looks rather cuddly with tiny horns, baby blue eyes and a pink nose, hands and feet. It comes as no surprise that little Leonardo is indeed a terrible monster. The poor thing can't scare anyone. After trying everything he can think of, he's utterly dejected. He's nothing like Tony, for instance, a beast who takes up a whole page and has many mouthfuls of teeth (with a footnote adding, "Not all teeth shown.").

One day, however, Leonardo has an idea of how to redeem himself: to find the most scaredy-cat kid in the whole world . . . and scare the tuna salad out of him! Leonardo eventually uncovers a bespectacled boy in suspenders named Sam, a child who looks even more nervous than Leonardo, and who appears to have little, if any, tuna salad-courage. Surprisingly, Leonardo's plan actually works! He sneaks up on poor Sam and growls, roars and shows his teeth, and Sam immediately starts bawling.

In the end, Leonardo feels awful. So awful, in fact, that he decides to befriend Sam. The two share a sweet ending, although Leonardo can't stop himself from occasionally shouting Boo! at his new best friend, scaredy-cat Sam. Not only is this story uncomplicated, there are few words in the text Willems knows how to keep the plot moving with action-packed drawings and not much verbiage, a true gift for any storyteller. Winner of six Emmy Awards as a writer for Sesame Street, Willems can deftly convey liveliness and movement on the page as well as the screen. Yet again, he has created the very essence of a new children's classic.


Alice Cary writes from Groton, Massachusetts.

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