In Funny Business, his 2009 collection of interviews with children’s book authors who write comedy, Leonard Marcus notes that humorist Will Rogers once said, “Everything is funny as long as it is happening to somebody else.”
In Mo Willems’ new picture book, That Is NOT a Good Idea!, part of the story’s surprise is that it provides a delicious (in more ways than one) twist on who precisely this Somebody Else is.
It is clearer than ever before with this new book that Willems once worked in the field of animation. The story is laid out as if one is watching a silent film. As the book’s cover makes evident, a group of goslings are watching and responding to the action on what we assume is a screen. On the opening spread, rendered via watercolors and pencil with some digital color enhancement, we see a fox has spotted a goose. The next spread—white letters on a black background, just as if we’re seeing the onscreen intertitle of a silent film—has merely “What luck!” on the left and “Dinner!” on the right. Readers assume these are the fox’s words, as he continues to woo the goose, luring her to his home for dinner. (One assumes she’ll be the one cooked, not the one served a meal.)
With the exception of those first two spreads, as well as the final ones, Willems devotes half of each spread to an illustration and the other to the intertitles, the fox’s words consistently on the left and the goose’s on the right. These spreads are alternated with the goslings’ passionate cries of warning about what a disastrous idea it is for her to go to the fox’s home: More and more appear as the story progresses, and they jump and yell, “That is really not a good idea!” It’s funny stuff, these interruptions from the dramatic geese, who are staring right at readers, as if we’re the screen.
The ending reminds us we may have assumed too much in the beginning. Could it have been the goose who initially thought about dinner when she first met the fox? I won’t ruin the finale of this clever, entertaining tale. It makes for a great storytime read-aloud, but just know the reading will likely be interrupted by children laughing loudly and exuberantly.
Like the goose (or was it the fox?), you’ve been warned.
Julie Danielson features the work of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.