Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Llama, Llama Red Pajama: In Memory of Anna Dewdney

The literary world was saddened this month to lose author and illustrator Anna Dewdney. Our household was saddened too.

Dewdney was the beloved author and illustrator of the Llama, Llama books for preschoolers. We discovered the original book, Llama, Llama Red Pajama not long after it was first published in 2005. Our daughter was the perfect age for the book then, and our family read it over and over, delighting in both its pictures and its rhymes.

I love what Dewdney once said: “A good children’s book can be read by an adult to a child, and experienced genuinely by both… A good children’s book is like a performance. I don’t feel my world really exists until an adult has read it to a child.”

There is great joy, as a parent, in helping your child discover the power and beauty of a classic book that has been around for many years before they were born, but there is also joy in discovering a brand new classic-in-the-making right alongside your child. That’s always how it felt when I would bring out Llama, Llama.

In honor of Ms. Dewdney’s life and work, I thought I would pull my October 2006 review of Llama, Llama from my archives and re-post it here. It was fun to revisit the delight our family found in the book when our daughter, now a teenager, was just four years old. 

Below is the slightly touched up version of that ten year old review.

We love books that make us laugh! Ever since my now four year old daughter was an infant, we've enjoyed discovering books that make her smile, grin, or chortle. Those stories that inspire soft giggles? Even better.

But what's really fun is when we find a book that causes all those things and then some. Llama, Llama Red Pajama is just such a book. It doesn't just make her smile. It causes her to erupt in side-splitting shouts of laughter! And between the enjoyment we get from hearing our little girl laugh so hard, and the humor that ensues from repeated parental readings of tongue-twisty rhymes involving the phrase "Mama Llama," we laugh right along with her.

Be warned. Llama, Llama Red Pajama is a habit forming phrase. Once you've read this book -- and if you have a 2-6 year old in your house, you will likely be asked to read it at least a dozen more times -- you will find yourselves repeating this phrase, not only when you read together, but just at random and for fun.

That’s because the prhase is a fun rhyme in a book full of great rhymes accompanied by truly funny pictures. Llama, Llama Red Pajama is a young male llama who has trouble settling down to sleep at bedtime. Throughout most of the story, he's in bed cuddling his stuffed baby llama. He's wearing bright red pajamas, of course. Mama Llama in a blue dress, apron and pearls (looking for all the world like a llama version of Donna Reed) tucks him in, kisses him good-night, and heads downstairs to do the supper dishes.

That's when the fun ensues. As any young child knows, sometimes when your Mama closes that door at night and disappears, you start to wonder. Where is she? Is she coming back? What's she doing without me? You start to get lonely. You start to see things in the dark. You start to wonder if you need to go to the bathroom or get a drink.

Lllama, Llama Red Pajama (one wonders if that's his full name on his birth certificate!) begins to wonder all those things. In rollicking rhyme, we learn:

Lllama llama
red pajama
feels alone
without his mama.

Baby llama wants a drink.
Mama's at the kitchen sink.

And later on:

Llama llama
red pajama
waiting waiting
for his mama.

Mama isn't
coming yet.
Baby llama
starts to fret.

The book wonderfully captures the night-time insecurities and impatience of a young child, but in such a fun way that it creatively defuses them. First time author-illustrator Anna Dewdney captures those childish feelings just perfectly, right down to the fact that "Llama, llama" keeps attributing his feelings and the subsequent behavior (hollering, wailing, pouting, even jumping on the bed!) to his stuffed toy llama, much as a child might say it was her doll who needed a drink of water or an extra kiss good-night.

I appreciate it that this is not a story about deep, dark night-time fears. Many picture books want to deal with fears about monsters under the bed or in the closet. Those might be helpful if you need to find ways to creatively discuss a specific fear, but if your child hasn't struggled with those, you certainly don't want to introduce the specific fearful thoughts into her mind! Instead, this book is more about general night-time anxieties that all children can relate to, as well as the need that all toddlers and preschoolers feel from time to time for just a little bit of extra attention.

I certainly don't want my daughter emulating Llama lama's worst behavior, but I appreciate how she relates to his feelings. And it's worth nothing that she hasn't copied his behavior, perhaps in part because of its over-the-top silliness, and also because now that she's a big four year old she can feel mildly superior and amused about such fussy tantrums! This book has helped her to realize she's growing up. Gently laughing over such kinds of behavior is a backhanded way of defusing the anxieties themselves. It's a creative way of saying "see? Llama llama didn't need to worry. His Mama was right there all the time, and she came as soon as she could...she was just on the phone for a while!" The great thing is, you don't have to say that, because the story says it for you:

Little llama,
don't you know?
Mama llama
loves you so?

Mama Llama's
always near,
even if she's
not right here.

As much as we love the rhymes, the illustrations are what really make this story. I'm delighted you can see the cover which shows the wide-eyed little llama in bed. Every expression on his face, as well as his Mama's, is delightful. In fact the pictures are so expressive that you'd probably get the story (and even laugh a lot!) without the text at all. Dewdney claims that all the facial expressions she draws in her books are inspired by her own. All I can say is, she must be one expressive lady!

My daughter's favorite spread is actually the only one without any text. Llama llama finally works himself up into a "tizzy" (as Mama later calls it) and wails so loudly that Mama hangs up the phone and goes rushing up the stairs. There's a wonderful sequence of four pictures across two pages where you see her running, her own furry face crinkled with maternal worry, until she bursts into his room. Only to realize, of course, that he's fine.

I love that spread too, but I'm especially partial to the illustration of Llama, llama with his quilt pulled up over his nose. All you can see are his two huge eyes, his little hooves, and his long, floppy ears!

I will warn you that this book is not the most "settling" of bedtime reads, since it inspires so much laughter. If your child needs help calming down before bedtime (and what child doesn't from time to time?) you may want to choose a quieter story to follow. But sometimes a book of this tone is just right – especially if you want to help your child expend a bit of energy right before bedtime.

Llama, Llama Red Pajama is handsomely designed in bright colors, especially red and blue. The colorful, expressive pictures and the short stanzas of silly rhyming text combine to make this book one of our family's very favorite funny reads! 


Review slightly revised and re-posted in loving memory of Anna Dewdney
(December 25, 1965-September 3, 2016).

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