Naked mole rats are, well, naked. They don’t wear clothes. Wilbur, however, is different from other naked mole rats. He loves wearing clothes. From a tuxedo to an astronaut suit, he will wear anything that suits his mood or how he wants to feel. The other naked mole rats respond with snarky comments and do their best to convince Wilbur that wearing clothes is not what naked mole rats are meant to do. Wilbur continues to question why naked mole rats can’t wear clothing. The naked mole rats try to convince Wilbur that Grand-pah, the “oldest, greatest, and most naked naked mole rat ever”, needs no clothing, so why should they? Wilbur’s response is: Why not? Furious and frustrated by Wilbur’s questioning, the other naked mole rats take their concerns directly to Grand-pah. After giving the situation much thought, Grand-pah gathers the colony to make an announcement. Grand-pah’s response and the overall lesson is simple: why not, indeed? Clothes can be fun! Readers will be tickled by the clothes that some naked mole rats choose, while other naked mole rats choose to remain naked.
Willems is well-known for his Pigeon picture books and the Elephant and Piggie beginning reader series. As he does with the books that follow those characters, the illustrations in Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed are simple with little to no background detail. In fact, Willems had this to say about his picture book illustrations, “The only rule I set for myself before starting is that the star of each book should be designed in such a way that anyone can draw him or her” (Shanae 2008). His artwork has a retro quality that, at times, is reminiscent of Charles Schultz or even William Steig. The lack of background or even a set location in Naked Mole Rat gives it a universal feel, which fits with the over-arching theme of the book. Emotions and surprisingly intense expressions are revealed most often in the eyes, but also in placement of the arms with occasional additions of various shaped lines to indicate movement and mood. Coloring appears to be watercolor in strong shades of pastel pinks, blues, greens, and yellows. Fans of Willems will get a kick out of finding the hidden face of the Pigeon, toward the end of the book.
Written in third-person point-of-view, Naked Mole Rat is an irreverent celebration of independence and individualism. The story is a bit of a twist on the fairy tale, “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Wilbur is a brave, bold, and courageous protagonist, but never in a way that is meant to undermine authority. He never tries to push his views on the other naked mole rats but, instead, they attempt to push their views on him. One could argue that they are trying to uphold tradition, yet the naked mole rats never discuss exactly why they don’t wear clothes. They just do not wear clothes! Humor abounds as readers see Wilbur in various outfits. There are even moments of sarcasm and Willems addresses this directly with the parenthetical statement, “Naked mole rats can be very sarcastic…” Children are sure to laugh not only at the personification of the naked mole rats, but also at the first mention or two of the word “naked.” The echoed phrase is likely to positively desensitize children to any supposed inappropriateness of the word. Children can take away many positives, such as being brave like Wilbur, learning self-expression, and embracing individuality.
For a silly storytime activity, make paper doll versions of Wilbur and his friends, then provide children with either construction paper or magazine clothing images so that children can “dress” the naked mole rats. This would also be a wonderful opportunity to add science to the mix by introducing children to actual photos of naked mole rats, information about their diets, and their habitats. In addition, a great resource for parents, teachers, and librarians, as well as a fun place for kids, is pigeonpresents.com. This site offers trivia, coloring sheets, flash games, and great extensions for teaching and storytelling in the “Grown-up Stuff” section.
I have read several Mo Willems books in both my Toddler and Preschool Storytimes. They are always a huge hit. Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed is one of my favorites, because of it’s irreverent humor and positive message about being yourself. I have not yet read this picture book in storytime, but it is definitely on my list!
Shanae, Sujata. September 2008. “Mo Willems.” National Center for Children’s Illustrated Literature. http://nccil.org/experience/artists/willemsm/. Accessed September 9, 2013.
Hyperion Books for Children. 2013. “Pigeon Presents!” http://www.pigeonpresents.com/. Accessed September 8, 2013.