My Literacy Journey

Reading the Word: Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed by Mo Willems

Posted on: May 2, 2010

Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed by Mo Willems is a clever and powerful story about one particular mole rat who dares to be different.  Wilbur is different from all of the other mole rats in his colony in that he likes to wear clothing and is brave enough to show it. The other naked mole rats shun him and ridicule him for doing this.  Wilbur simply asks “why not” when the others challenge him as to why he is not naked.  The other mole rats are so bothered by Wilbur’s differences that they look to Grand-pah, the oldest, wisest, and most naked mole rat for some answers.  The other naked mole rats are surprised when Grand-pah’s reaction is far from what they expected.  Grand-pah supports Wilbur’s clothing-wearing and ponders the question of “why not” himself.  Grand-pah issues a new proclamation that it is acceptable to wear clothing if the naked mole rats wish to do so. Once the proclamation is issued, some of the other mole rats become brazen enough to show that they also enjoy wearing clothing.

The nature of the characters in this book lends itself to a rather neutral portrayal of society.  Both the pictures and the text portray only mole rats as the characters. The fact that there are no human beings in the story makes it relatable to all readers, regardless of race or background.  Children from a broad spectrum of socio-economic and educational backgrounds may feel comfortable with the story because the characters are represented as mole rats and there is no hint of class delineations among the rats.

Males would relate most to this text because of the gender of the main character in the story.  Wilbur is male, as is Grand-pah, who is seen as the respected leader of the mole rat community.  There is no mention of female characters in the text and there is only one or two illustrations of a female among the many male depictions.  Females are underrepresented in the story. Whether or not this is intentional or is simply representative of the real mole rat population remains unclear.

The underlying message in this story is to stand up for what you believe in and to dare to be different. The courage and independence that the main character, Wilbur demonstrates are valuable personality traits that a reader can learn from and identify with.   Subsequently, the reader understands that it is okay to be different and one may even be respected for their individuality.  To this end, children may be encouraged to become leaders as opposed to following the crowd.

The cues that led me to this interpretation were both present in the text and illustrations.  “’Why not, indeed?  Do clothes hurt anyone? No.  Are they fun?  Well, they may not be fun for everyone, but this old naked mole rat wishes he had tried getting dressed earlier’” (Willems, 2009, p. 27)!  The issue of posing questions is discussed in Using Controversial Books to Support Engagement, Diversity, and Democracy.”…students can make connections between the lives of people they read about in realistic fiction books and their own lives” (Lewison, Leland, Flint, & Moller, 2002 p.217).  Children’s questioning is a starting place for curriculum. It is clear that the opinion of Grand-pah is highly valued by the community of mole rats. Grand-pah is wise enough to re-evaluate the standards of society and shows that there is always room for reinterpretation and change.  Change can be beneficial.  On pages thirty-six and thirty-seven of the story, the illustrations show some of the mole rats naked and some of the mole rats clothed.  This is an example of an illustrative cue substantiating this interpretation.

One point to consider is the idea of social class represented in this story.  Wilbur demonstrates different walks of life by wearing different outfits and articles of clothing including uniforms and costumes.  “’I like clothes,’ replied Wilbur.  ‘When I get dressed I can be…’…fancy, or funny, or cool, or I can just be an astronaut’” (Willems, 2009, p.6-7).  The varied clothing types encourage the reader to use their imagination and fantasize.

Stephanie  Jones, in girls, social class & literacy brings up the point of privilege and accessibility to resources.  Wilbur can be seen as a privileged mole rat because of his accessibility to many different types of clothing and how easily he reaches these materials.  Moreover, privilege can be related to opportunity.  Wilbur is able to “try on” different roles in society. Opportunity is more available to those who have access to monetary goods.

Jones serves as a teacher, researcher, and mentor to eight young girls.  Similarly, Grand-pah shows the mole rats that with his leadership and support, dreams become possible.

The concept of bullying also comes to mind when reading Willems’ story.  Wilbur experiences both verbal and physical bullying from the other mole rats.  Wilbur learns to be a fighter and an advocate for what he believes in.  In Jones’ text, “Cadence hinted at her wondering of why fighting was such a way of life, but this didn’t interfere with her determination to be a fighter when she grows up” (Jones, 2006, p.39).  Although some may consider Cadence’s desire to be a fighter similar to that of a bully, Jones explains it as just someone who is determined to stand up for what they believe in and deserve.

One must also consider why there are few or no female characters in the story.  Female audiences may find it difficult to relate to the story or question why the Wilbur and Grand-pah are both male.

Further, it is important to pay attention to the idea that all of the naked mole rats are the same light, pink color.  It seems as though this story is speaking only to mole rats of this color.  It is questionable as to whether there are naked mole rats of other colors and why they are not represented in the story.  The reader may have difficulty relating to the story because he/she may be a different color than classmates or have never been in a situation where everybody was the same color or looked the same in his/her own community.

Fortunately, I have always been supported of my differences and my individuality has been celebrated.  Although Wilbur is male, I am easily able to identify with him as a character that possesses courage and a strong voice.  The reading connects to culture in the sense that the mole rats are a community.  They are all part of the same group.  The reading connects to power in that Grand-pah represents an omniscient character that the other mole rats look to for leadership.  The reading connects to literacy in that this is a story that children can both read and discuss.  There are opportunities of further discussion and ways to incorporate individual reflection. Overall, Willems’ work is a story that is fun, engaging, and easy to relate to for a wide variety of audiences.

References

Jones, S (2006). girls, social class, & literacy. Portsmouth, NH: Heinesman.

Lewison, M., Leland, C., Flint, A. S., & Moller, K. J. (2002). Dangerous discourses: Using                 controversial books to support engagement, diversity, and democracy. The New Advocate, 15(3), 215-226.

Willems, M (2009). Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed. New York, NY: Hyperion Books for Children.

Reflection:

I decided to include this critical reading of Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed by Mo Willems because I think it shows how much I have changed my thinking about critical literacy. This was a critical reading that I did during my first course at TC this past summer, with Ellen Ellis as my instructor.

Throughout the analysis, I show some instances of deep thought and interpretation about the text yet there is so much that I did not uncover.  I partially believe that some of this is because I simply did not have as much access to the materials and information about engaging in critical literacy, while I also think that I just was merely as astute about what I was reading, and my wonderings.

One aspect that really grabbed my attention was my discussion around how the use of rats as characters avoids marginalizations and allows everyone to relate to the text.  As I have explored this semester, I know that this is not the case at all, and as a teacher of critical literacy I need to be cognizant of this.  There is so much more to pay attention to when critically reading a text, which can give the reader insight into who the text is really designed for, relatable for, and positioned for.

I think this critical paper demonstrates just how far I have come in my own literacy journey.  I am proud to say that I have come a very long way from how I thought when I wrote this, and I look forward to continuing my journey as a literacy leader.

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