A Modern Fable in the Style of a Silent Movie
Could a fox and a goose ever be friends?
A fox and a goose meet. They venture into deep dark woods together.
Meanwhile, an increasing number of chicks warn: “That is not a good idea!”
This book is great fun. It’s told in the style of a silent film. There’s a wonderful, unexpected twist at the end (about which I’ll try not to reveal too much!).
In the parts with the fox and the goose, the illustrations are followed by pages that look like the title cards of silent films. The images show us what's happening, the title cards tell us what the characters are saying to one another.
Chicks appear every four pages next to their own words of warning. They break the fourth wall and speak directly to the reader. At first it seems as though they are spectators like us, but they eventually become an integral part of the story.
One of my favourite things about this is how much is imparted by the illustrations, particularly the expressions and postures of the characters. The fox glances theatrically and conspiratorially at the reader, just as villains in silent films glance at the camera to indicate nefarious intentions. We are shown close-ups of the goose's face similar to how a camera might zoom in.
I love the chicks and how their agitation and heightened emotion is communicated so clearly. Some have their hands over their eyes. Some are jumping up and down. Their panic grows as the impending danger intensifies. The repetition of their remarks is great for kids. “That is not a good idea!” becomes “That is REALLY not a good idea!” and an additional 'really' is added every time the stakes get higher.
I also LOVE how this takes a traditional fable and turns it on its head. Full of suspense, the story deliberately misleads the reader by playing with gender and animal stereotypes. It exploits our perception of the sly fox and the silly goose. And it challenges the notion of females as vulnerable and helpless victims of predators.
Why are foxes so often portrayed as sly? Foxes have terrible reputations in classic children’s literature and even contemporary cartoons. They tend to be depicted as devious charlatans most of the time. The earliest examples of this can be seen in Aesop’s Fables, attributed to an Egyptian slave.
It’s uncertain whether all of Aesop’s fables were written by the same person (and unlikely), but he does seem to have existed. You can read more about Aesop here (the subject of my last post, Cinderella, also has Ancient Egyptian connections!).
The concept of the fox as sly and cunning seems to have permeated several cultures. A word that describes dishonest and roguish behaviour, 'shenanigans,' has been linked to 'sionnach.' This is the word for 'fox' in Gaeilge, the Irish language. 'Shenanigans' is possibly derived from the word “sionnachuighim” which allegedly means “I play the fox” in Irish.
I couldn’t find 'sionnachuighim' in an Irish/English dictionary, so I asked my friend and Gaeilge-expert, Eilís, if she knew the word. Eilís wasn’t familiar with it but helpfully enquired with her own even more fluent friend. They had never seen 'sionnachuighim' before either, but said it could be an old word that has become obsolete.
Eilís sent me this article from The Irish Times, which touches on the origins of the word 'shenanigans,' but doesn’t come to a strong conclusion. Although, as Eilís informed me, sionnachúil, the word for 'cunning' in the Irish language, is derived from the word for 'sionnach' for 'fox'.
Foxes may be given negative traits Western mythology, but in Native American and Japanese folklore, they're revered for their wisdom. Geese are often portrayed as gullible and naive in traditional tales and parables, but they were once venerated too. I found this essay by Jeri Studebaker about how geese were glorified and worshipped in the past.
According to Studebaker: "To the pre-patriarchal ancient Egyptians, the sun was created by a goddess who turned herself into a goose and then laid 'the golden sun egg,' and in Old Europe, several millennia before the birth of Christ, goddesses in the form of geese watched over birth and destiny.”
Studebaker asserts that public opinion was subsequently turned against geese by the medieval church. Threatened by the popularity of pagan geese worship, the church placed statues of geese in town squares. The church then paid people to hurl rocks at these statues in an effort to undermine the goddesses. If you're interested in learning more about this, Jeri Studebaker has written a whole book called Breaking the Mother Goose Code.
The goose in That Is Not a Good Idea! could be considered a nod to pagan narratives and deities, before geese became lobotomised in popular culture. I don’t know if Mo Willems was consciously writing a feminist fable or deliberately attempting to restore geese to their former symbolic glory. But the goose in this story is definitely not stupid, and far more intriguing than her species is typically portrayed in children's books.
Author and illustrator Mo Willems is an extremely interesting character himself. Willems has been drawing and creating stories since the age of three. He spent a year travelling around the world and drawing cartoons after graduating from college. Willems was awarded six Emmy Awards for his work as a writer and animator for Sesame Street. He has created several shows for The Cartoon Network.
Willems is an incredibly talented and prolific picture book author. His latest book, The Pigeon HAS to Go to School!, was on the NY Times Bestseller list for 11 weeks running. He has been awarded the Caldecott Award three times. Two animated versions of his books have also won the Carnegie Medal.
I first discovered Mo Willems when working in a bookshop in 2004 as the wonderful Knuffle Bunny was released. Reading There is a Bird on Your Head after serving a rude customer would cheer me up when I was a bookseller again in 2009. They are both brilliant and I hope to write about these, and other amazing books by Willems, soon.
In the meantime, get hold of That is Not a Good Idea!. It is playful, clever, thrilling and even slightly macabre, but most importantly: guaranteed to make its readers laugh out loud (unless they're a fox!).
ISBN: 9781406355581 (paperback, UK edition)
Author: Mo Willems
Publisher: Walker Books (UK), HarperCollins (US)
Publication Date: April 2013 (hardback), September 2014 (paperback)