Mo Willems and D. W. Winnicott


It’s been a while since I posted about a picture book. Where the Wild Things Are and Goodnight Moon are pretty much the only ones I remember talking much about. I’ll try to work in a couple this week, though tomorrow night I’ll be at Blue Manatee for Lois Lowry’s visit, so I’ll try to post on that Tuesday. Today is Mo Willems’ Knuffle Bunny, one of three Caldecott Honor books he’s written and illustrated. The others are Don’t Let the Pigeons on the Bus and Knuffle Bunny Too: A Case of Mistaken Identity.

from Amazon

I love Knuffle Bunny. The full title, of course, is Knuffle Bunny, A Cautionary Tale by Mo Willems. Knuffle Bunny tells the tale of Trixie, who’s old enough to walk and to carry her stuffed animal, but not old enough to talk just yet. Developmentally, that isn’t quite on target, but for the sake of the book we could call her about twelve to fifteen months old. She goes to the laundrymat with her father and her Knuffle Bunny, and Knuffle Bunny gets caught up in the clothes and put in the washer. Dad and Trixie start for home. When Trixie realizes she’s missing Knuffle Bunny she tries to communicate that to her father, and over the course of six pages with one to three pictures on a page, she becomes increasingly distressed and frustrated, as does her father–he doesn’t get it. Finally resolving the tension in an hilarious two page illustration, they get home and the first words from mom’s mouth are “Where’s Knuffle Bunny?” [SPOILER ALERT] The three of them run back to the laundrymat and eventually find knuffle bunny.

A knuffle bunny by Yotoy

The illustrations are genius. They are cartoon drawings of people done on soothing, repetitive photos of Brooklyn street scenes and row houses and photos of rows of washers or dryers inside of a laundrymat. The people, mostly Trixie, her dad and her mom, are a little larger than life and their expressions underscore the emotion of the words of the story in an empathic and emotionally real way.

Full disclosure: The author of this blog post once drove a car with a wife and four kids over a hundred miles back to a hotel to get Boy Cat, a three year old’s treasured stuffed animal.

Why did I do that? Why did Mommy realize when she opened the door that Knuffle Bunny was missing. Why did the whole family run back to find the stuffed animal? And what does it mean that The Velveteen Rabbit became real.

Why? Because Knuffle Bunny and Boy Cat are transitional objects. Donald Winnicott is my hero. He was a pediatrician and psychoanalyst, and introduced the term “transitional object” in 1951.

When a baby is first born, she doesn’t really distinguish between what’s “her” and what’s “not her.” She feels hunger and her hunger calls into existence the breast or bottle and the person attached, all parts of her. By about six months old she’s beginning to have interactive “conversations” with mom and dad–they’ll talk and she’ll listen then she’ll talk and they listen and they’d better answer! And she’s starting to figure out that they’re different people than she is. They are outside of her. By seven to nine months old she can hold an image of her parents in her mind and compare it to the person in front of her, she knows her parents are special to her and she’ll get anxious if someone else comes too close.

(Switching subtly to second person) But having a parent who really is not a part of you means you’re losing a part of yourself that’s responsible for comforting and soothing and sustaining you. Eventually, you’ll be able to take over all of those functions, but it was your mom who did those things, and now that she’s a separate person you’ve lost that ability as part of self, and it now comes from outside. To steal a question from Theodore Seuss Geisel, “Well what would you do?”

The answer is those stuffed animals in the crib, the ones your parents left there. One (or more) of those, or something else . . . I’ve seen mother’s old bra fill the function . . . becomes your transition from the soothing mother who’s now outside you to being able to soothe yourself. It becomes the “Transitional Object.” It is very literally the first thing you really own, since in some ways it is a part of you. And it is real in that it has acquired very real properties of soothing and sustenance from your parents.

Mo Willems has captured the feeling wonderfully.


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