Pick up a hardcover copy of "Leonardo the Terrible Monster" and take a gander at the bookflap. Scan your eyes downwards and take special note of the suggested reading level. This, I must say, is a bit of calculated picture book brilliance. It reads, "For audiences as young as 3 and as old as 36". Now I once experienced the supreme pleasure of sitting amongst several hundred librarians and teachers in the New York City Arts and Humanities Library to see Mr. Mo Willems speak. My friends, you have not lived until you see a hundred or so middle-aged female librarians swooning over Mr. Willems' dapper good looks, his off-the-cuff remarks, and his instant rapport with any crowd. He is also, as far as I can determine, probably 36 and herein lies the beauty of the little note on the bookflap. Any yahoo could write that awful and almost obligatory statement that proclaims, "For kids between 3 and 103!!!", with a sickeningly saccharine smile. This book, on the other hand, makes the cut-off 36 and from there on in "Leonardo" proves to be a consistently surprising and sublime little tale.
Meet Leonardo. Leonardo has a problem. As any child familiar with the concept of monsters knows (or who has seen "Monsters, Inc", anyway) the job of that particular creature is to be scary. In this respect, Leonardo fails miserably. He just ain't a fright. When he attempts to do so he earns patronizing looks of the awww-isn't-the-little-fella-cute variety. Other monsters either look or act in a disturbing manner. Not our Leo. Fully aware that he needs a plan of some sort, Leonardo decides to locate, "the most scaredy-cat kid in the whole world" and frighten the bejeezus out of 'em. Sam is that kid. When Leonardo attempts to scare Sam it seems at first as if it has worked. Sam is, after all, in tears. The kid, however, claims that Leonardo's sorry excuse for a scare was not the source of his tears and then proceeds to outline exactly how horrible a day he's had and why he's been on the brink of tears ever since. Leonardo is moved by the little boy's story and resolves there and then to become Sam's friend. For a moment it looks as if the two little guys walking off holding hands will be the last picture in the book, but this is a Willems title after all. Though they're definitely buds now, the book admits, "that didn't mean that he [Leonardo] couldn't try to scare his friend every now and then". The real ending of the book? Sam joyfully running after Leonardo after the monster really has scared him a little. Happy ending for all.
So let's take a look at this book. Prior to "Leonardo", Willems was a fan of the square and the long horizontal shaped picture books. There are lots of theories out there that talk about how the shape of a children's title determines the kind of story it is. By and large, books (like "Leonardo") that are long and vertical tend to be far more interesting artistically than their square or horizontal brothers. Certainly this is Willems' most beautiful book to date. The cover looks like an old-timey wanted poster, or perhaps playbill for some penny-dreadful theatrical production. Inside, Mr. Willems make great use of space. The font is beautiful and ornate up until Sam's two-page explanation about how much his life sucks. At that point it becomes blocky and bold. Figures sometimes fill entire pages and sometimes, as when Leonardo is shocked or miserable, they take up just a tiny bit of room. It's clear that there is a very careful calculation behind each picture that determines where a figure is, how much space he or she takes up, and where the words on that page should go. Though I have great respect for "Knuffle Bunny", love the "Pigeon" and am appreciative of his instructional books like "Time To Pee" and "Time to Say Please", this is Mo's best artistic work to date. The title is just as much about what Willems doesn't illustrate as it is what he does illustrate. It makes for a gorgeous read.
Mr. Willems once worked for "Sesame Street", so I found his return to the monsters-are-scary concept especially amusing. He knows his child audience and knows it quite well. In a picture that features a monster that is far scarier than Leonardo, we meet Tony who is said to have 1,642 teeth. An note attached to the bottom of the page, however, reads, "Note: Not all teeth shown". Why put that on the page? Because Mr. Willems knows perfectly well that if you draw a monster and claim that he has 1,642 teeth, your child readers will all count those teeth and cry bloody murder that there are only 148 in the picture.
Now I need your help. Remember when I said that I saw Mr. Willems speak in NYC? Well at that time he mentioned his best beloved and universally applauded (not to say Caldecott Honored) book, "Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus" and its subsequent spin-offs. In the course of the discussion, Mr. Willems confided that the pigeon now appears in all his books, regardless as to whether or not that book is about him. In "Knuffle Bunny" it appears on someone's shirt. And supposedly it can be located in "Leonardo, the Terrible Monster". Now I have scanned this book from tip to toe. I've inspected each and every page with a fine tooth comb. I've meticulously culled every last stroke of the pen in an effort to find the deceptively simple fowl and I cannot for the life of me locate him anywhere. If you do happen to find the pigeon I want you to write a review of this book on Amazon and tell the whole wide world where to find it. Honestly, it's killing me not to know. Otherwise, there is nothing is this book that is objectionable in the least. It's lovely to view, has thick pages that will stand up to a lot of wear and tear, contains a story that is hard to resist, employs a great color scheme and font, and is just an all around joy. A monster must-have.