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Willems, Mo Leonardo the Terrible Monster; written and illus. by Mo Willems.
Hyperion, 2005 48p
ISBN 0-7868-5294-1 $16.99 R 3-6 yrs
Ever since Maurice Sendak tamed Max's wild things in the early '60s, books have become a source of comfort for little ones terrified by things that go bump in the night. Contemporary versions of kid-versus-monsters tales, such as Hicks' Jitterbug Jam (BCCB 7/04), the popular film Monsters, Inc., and this, Mo Willems' latest, look at matters from the monsters' point of view, helping kids see that while they think they have problems, things are tough all over.
Leonardo isn't a terrible monster so much as he is terrible at being a monster. He's not excessively toothed, horrifically large, or anxiously weird; in fact, he's kinda cute, looking more like a favorite stuffed animal (you know the one—overstuffed head, body floppy due to excessive squeezing that has compressed the stuffing, original color faded to a dingy brownish gold from overwashing and overloving). What he lacks in talent, though, he's determined to compensate for in slyness by finding a scaredy-cat kid to terrify, thus ramping up his monsterly street cred. He dons glasses, gets himself a cup of coffee and a clipboard, and pores over yearbooks, investigating and rejecting multiple candidates before settling on meek, depressed-looking Sam, who sits eloquently alone on the page, an island of misery in a vast and empty double-page spread. Yet while Leonardo's attempt to scare him seems to work (Sam squeezes out a little tear), it turns out that Sam, like most kids—and grownups—who finally end up in tears, has a litany of complaints that span a couple of months and several situations and have nothing to do with Leonardo's ability (or inability) to elicit fear.
What's a monster to do? Like Willems' pigeon who finally decided to give in to the duckling who has been pestering him for a bit of hot dog (see The Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog, BCCB 7/04), Leonardo changes his course and decides that being a wonderful friend is better than being a terrible monster, and the boys live happily ever after as pals.
In his visuals, Willems once again proves that a few well-placed lines, simple shapes, and evocative fonts can be wonderfully effective in the hands of a master animator. Eschewing clutter in favor of clean, almost spare compositions that express as much through their use of negative space as through the figures they include, he manages to tell an old story in a fresh way. His use of smooth, pure colors contained in clear outlines pleasingly evokes and updates Dr. Seuss, as Willems softens his contrasts and backgrounds with solid, milky shades of saltwater taffy that caress the eye. His keen ear for storytelling shines in his careful exposition and surprising climaxes, which are as strong visually as they are textually. The Old West font provides a tall-tale feeling, but the standout spread belongs to Sam, as he wails in a font that you can practically hear—slanted block capital letters that fill the strawberry background with his muted chartreuse tale of woe. We have all so been there, Sam.
The conclusion may be a teensy bit predictable even with its comic twist, but that's forgivable in light of the particular tradition in which this story participates. The oversized format is a boon for story-hour sharing, so bring this one out to tame monsters and highlight some mighty fine contemporary picture-book composition.
Karen Coats, Reviewer
Cover illustration by Mo Willems from Leonardo the Terrible Monster © 2005. Used by permission of Hyperion Books for Children.
This page was last updated on November 1, 2005.