Read this book naked. Or clothed. The rats are open-minded about that.

Sometimes a book just captures us with its brilliance, its subtlety, its language, its characters, or its plot.  Rarely, a book has all of that.  Even more rarely, that book is a picture book.  About rats.  Naked mole rats, actually.  But this one wins over my heart every time I read it.  It is rich with meaning and good life lessons without being preachy or losing its magically simple story.

Even though this is not an author who needs any plugs from me, this is a very special Mo Willems book that everyone should own.

Title: Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed
Author: Mo Willems
: Picture Book
Age: Any.  Really.

Summary and Review:

This is a story about a naked mole rat named Wilbur who is a lot like the other naked mole rats in his colony except for one thing: he likes to get dressed.  This, as you can imagine, causes much embarrassment, outrage, and isolation.  The other naked mole rats simply cannot understand.  In a fit of anger, after every other attempt to explain to Wilbur that naked mole rats are, in fact, naked, they scream in unison (and in all caps) “NAKED MOLE RATS DON’T WEAR CLOTHES!”

At which point comes my absolute favorite part of the book, when Wilbur asks, simply, “Why not?”

And the hysteria begins.

Possible conversations to have with your kids:

There is so much to talk about in this book you could read it every night and still have a meaningful conversation!  In my view, the intended moral is that it’s okay to be different.  That it’s okay to challenge authority and accepted views and just be yourself.  And even though the idea that getting dressed could cause such social outrage seems a far-fetched fantasy, I would argue that it’s not.  Look at what kids wear to school and what they feel pressured to wear.  This book says that it’s okay to wear something different if that’s who you want to be.  It’s okay to be you.  This can be extended to anything outside of the fashion arena, and would make for a great conversation with any kid, whether they are visibly pushing social boundaries or not.

For a younger child, I think it’s okay to make the point that Wilbur isn’t hurting anyone other than himself in his quest to be different.  He isn’t trying to be different in a way that harms others.  For an older child, though, I would resist the temptation to preach, and instead ask them.  Is Wilbur hurting others?  The others certainly act like he is–they are angry enough.  How do we know when our actions hurt others beyond what is reasonable to freely express our own opinions?  What if Wilbur expressed himself by wearing clothes with “bad words” on it?  Would that be hurting others or would that be expressing himself?  There are a lot of simple examples you can give to your child to get them thinking about the all-important questions of respect, authority, and individualism.

Also, I really think it’s important to focus on that one page where Wilbur asks “Why not?”  This is a critical question.  The tradition of nakedness certainly stands in his colony of naked mole rats.  The other naked mole rats certainly believe in it with unwavering strength.  But do they understand why?  Teaching kids to respectfully question what they are taught opens their minds to new ideas and new analyses of old ideas.

As a middle school teacher, I saw a lot of adolescents come through my classroom doors from elementary school.  A lot of them were used to getting good grades, if not straight A’s.  They had breezed through the last few years by following directions and memorizing facts.  But now that the curriculum was getting more complex, they were struggling.  It wasn’t all about memorization anymore.  We wanted them to think. Sometimes, the kids who had lower grades but more experience thinking critically would do better in the higher-level thinking classes of middle and upper school.  It was often easier to help lay foundational knowledge and study skills than it was to teach someone to ask good questions and think about what they were learning.  So I would vehemently argue that it’s never too early (or too late) to teach your kids to think.  Books like this are perfect.  Wilbur is a good role model: he thinks outside the box, he believes in himself, he respects others, and he asks a crucial, meaningful question.

Why not?

Why not, indeed.  Couldn’t we all use a little more “why not” in our lives?

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