In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Piggie is a girl!

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Your last post gave me a great little epiphany moment -- all this time, all these many readings of Bow-Wow, I had just assumed the dog was male.  But you're right -- there are no gender cues at all.  What does it take for an animal to read as female?  Long eyelashes, I guess.  Eleanor has already consciously picked up on the eyelash cue when assigning gender to animal characters.  If it looks neutral, it's probably male.

Which is why your post reminded me of the moment that I figured out that Piggie, of Mo Willems's most excellent Elephant and Piggie series, is female.

The Elephant and Piggie books are cartoony stories about the adventures of Gerald (the elephant, a worrywart) and Piggie (the pig, mostly a happy-go-lucky sort, but prone to fits of anger).  They're longer than Willems's Pigeon books, and all the text is dialogue, in speech bubbles.  (They lend themselves to staged readings.)

The first Elephant and Piggie book we came across was Are You Ready to Play Outside?, in which Piggie's great enthusiasm for playing outside is dampened (ahem) by a torrential downpour.  She is crushed.  She is furious.  She hates the rain.  But with Gerald's help and after seeing two really happy worms playing in the rain, Piggie decides that rain is actually wonderful!  Just in time for it to stop raining.

I'm using the female pronoun here, but on first reading (and second, and fifteenth), I read both characters as male.  They have a kind of odd-couple feel that makes me think of buddy movies, Laurel and Hardy, Frog and Toad.  Piggie has no secondary sex characteristics -- no curly eyelashes here -- and neither character wears clothes.  Gerald is gendered by his name; Piggie isn't. Because the whole book is a dialogue between two characters, it's pretty easy to avoid pronouns.

We read other Elephant and Piggie books: There is a Bird on Your Head! is my other great favorite, although there are many.  I love the declarative titles.  It wasn't until we found I Am Invited to a Party! at the library that I saw it: when Piggie is invited to a party, and she and Gerald dress up in a wide variety of outfits to prepare, she wears women's clothing.  I think there may also be a female pronoun in this one; I don't have it at home to check.  The jacket copy confirms Piggie's gender as well, where others don't.

So, interesting choices by Mo Willems.  Why create a pair of male-female best friends and leave the gender of one, but not the other, ambiguous for several books?  Or did Piggie read as female to Willems from the beginning, and would Eleanor's and my gender assumptions about her surprise him? 

In any case, they're a nice boy-girl non-romantic pair.

Love, Annie


  1. We received the party book in the series first, so I always knew Piggie was a girl. But what bothers me is, why doesn't Piggie have a real name? Gerald is not called Elephanty or anything similar. Why would one of them have a name and the other not?

  2. When I was a child, I always assumed that Piglet from Winnie the Pooh was a girl. Even when I was told otherwise, I refused to accept it. As far as I was concerned, it didn't matter what Piglet's actual gender is. I read her as female, and I still do, even though I know that she was meant to be male. Because she's a fictional character, I felt that no one (not even the author) could tell me that I was wrong in thinking of Piglet as a girl. Most likely, my feelings came from the lack of female characters in Winnie the Pooh and the fact that Piglet is pink.


  3. Hi ! I stumbled upon your blog and had to bookmark it! I share ur views on Elephant and Piggie series that we had come across while living in the US. I still get them from there....nice one!! Loved your take on the same...will look forward to more!

  4. Just had this debate with my 5 year old. She assumed Piggie was a boy because of the lack of female characteristics. I asked her why a boy would wear a dress to a party and she said because it was a fancy party. I told her I was going to Google it to see who was right. After reading your blog I made her read the back cover and she stopped at her then again at she as she read and realized daddy was right!

  5. We're glad you found us!

    And of course, as Erica's comment above illustrates, and as my daughters taught me ( see Gorky Rises ), there's a lot of leeway in kids' interpretation of characters' gender.