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A Conversation with Mo Willems

The stand-up comic turned animator turned bestselling children's book author shares his views on what it takes to make a great picture book.
 

Learning Benefits

Parents everywhere owe a debt to Mo Willems for keeping their kids so well entertained — and interested in reading, writing, and drawing. Winner of six Emmy awards for his contributions to PBS's Sesame Street, and two Caldecott medals for his books, Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! and Knuffle Bunny: a Cautionary Tale, Willems continues to enthrall readers of all ages with his style of highly integrated words and pictures. His goal is to create books that invite children to play and even copy the main character. "Kids can't be astronauts, but they can be authors and illustrators," says Willems. "If kids can quickly sketch a character, they'll hopefully be more willing to create their own adventures with him." We caught up with Willems in Park Slope, Brooklyn, where he lives with his wife and daughter, to learn more about his creative process and how to enrich your child's creative life.

P&C: Your Pigeon has become a classic, and spawned many books. How did you come up with this winning character? 
Mo Willems: Pigeon was born accidentally in a sketchbook in Oxford, England, where I was spending a month determined to write a "great" children's book. Of course, my "great" ideas stank, but fortunately for me I'd made all these doodles of the Pigeon in my book, and he kept telling me how bad those ideas were. After a while, I started to turn my attention to this egocentric birdie and discovered he had legs, so to speak. About five years later a publisher finally accepted the manuscript for Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!

P&C: You've said that for characters to be alive, they have to enter into a dialog with the audience. Can you elaborate?
Willems: All books are dialogs with their readers in some way or other. In a dull book, the other end of the conversation might be "Boring! I'm going to close this book!" We picture book makers, however, try very hard to engage a child's imagination to elicit a joyful reaction. I have found that children become more engaged with my stories if I put less in them. That may seem counterintuitive, but if a kid uses her imagination to fill in the blanks, the story will become more involving thanks to the kid's participation. Give someone every detail, meaning, and nuance in a story, and they have nothing to do. Sometimes I hope for an obvious response — such as kids yelling, "NOOOOOO!" to the Pigeon — but, like the time a child wrote to tell me what Knuffle Bunny did while stuck in the washing machine ("As long as she was in the laundry, she tried on all the clothes. They were fabulous!"), I find the unexpected connections kids make more rewarding.

P&C: What does it take to create great illustrations for a children's book?
Willems: I wish I knew; it would make my job easier! I look for two things: illustrations that live in partnership with the text, and a very personal vision. The great illustrators in the business today all have individual, quirky sensibilities. In my own work, I look for simplicity of line, partially to focus on the emotions of the book and partially because I want the main character of each book to be easily copied by a 5 year old. My books aren't made simply to be read; I want them to be played.

P&C: You've said that your children's books are really comics. What do you mean?
Willems: In my heart I'm a cartoonist. My books are really mini graphic novels, employing comic-book devices, such as word bubbles, action lines, and multiple panels. I love comic books' dramatic use of the page turn. In a "regular" book, you turn the page when it runs out of words, but in a comic book, every page-turn is a moment of great drama. What will be different from page to page? Has time passed? Will someone new appear on the stage? The possibilities are endless. Another comic book device I enjoy is the highlighting of the text to give visual clues as to the emotion of the character. When the Pigeon flips out, the accompanying text is huge, yellow, and very sketchy, as if it were written in a huff. When Sam says, "That's why" after unloading his woes in Leonardo the Terrible Monster, the text is small and colored in a muted brown. Those all are good reasons to ape from comics, but when it comes right down to it: Comics are fun to read.

P&C: How can parents encourage their kids to draw and to tell visual stories? 
Willems: Cartoons are merely a bunch of shapes put together in the right order, just like your name is a bunch of letters put together in the right order. And letters are really just a bunch of shapes you know how to draw. That's a long-winded way of saying that if you can write your name, you can draw any cartoon in the world! For those kids who get frustrated when a drawing doesn't come out the way they want, I like to remind them that drawing is a form of athletics; you are training your eyes and body to do what your brain wants. If a baseball player doesn't hit the ball the first time he swings, he doesn't give up. The best way to get your kid drawing, of course, is by joining in. If drawing is important for a child's emotional and creative life, why wouldn't it be important for yours?

P&C: What do you look for when selecting books for your own child?
Willems: The words "by Mo Willems" on the cover! Actually, first and foremost, I ask if a book will entertain and engage my daughter, because the book is for her. Books need not be the literary equivalent of brussel sprouts. Second, I look for books that will engage her sense of play, so that more than saying, "Read it again!" she will being to weave her own stories using the premise or characters from the book she has just enjoyed. Finally, I want a book that is different from the last one. There's so much great stuff out there, I don't want her to miss out.

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