An interview with Mo Willems

posted in: Mo Willems | 11

How do I introduce my interviewee today?

He’s an author/illustrator/cartoonist who has thrice been awarded a Caldecott Honor, twice the Theodor Seuss Geisel Medal and three more times made it onto the Geisel Honors list. His characters, from Pigeon, to Knuffle Bunny via Elephant and Piggie are beloved friends of so many children (to say nothing of their grownups)… yes, I am talking about the one and only Mo Willems.

Mo was recently in the UK and I was invited to meet him. I shall forever regret the fact that meeting up was an impossibility, but at least I got the chance to interview him, and here’s how our conversation went:

Playing by the book: Hi Mo, It’s a delight to be able to interview you! Not least because of something you once said: “I don’t really want my books to be read, I want them to be played” – and this playing, the experience _after_ the book has been read is exactly what I try to explore on my blog, Playing by the book. What have been some of your favourite experiences of playing a book (any book) – either as a child, or now as a parent?

Mo Willems: One of my favorite things to do with my kid when she was younger was to “read it WRONG”. I’d change “Go Dog Go!” to “Go Monkey Go!” and immediately get a scandalized “Noooo!” from her. She’d correct me and continue the ‘proper’ story. We were both amused and she was empowered. What could be better.

My upcoming picture book, GOLDILOCKS AND THE THREE DINOSAURS, is a direct result of that messing about. You can read more about reading it wrong in this old essay for Scholastic [Zoe adds: If a dialogue box opens requestion a login, just click it away and the article should appear underneath]

Last week Mo and The Pigeon were driving this bus around London!
Whilst Mo was in the UK, he and Pigeon toured London in this bus.

Playing by the book: You loved comics as a child, and you prefer to be called a cartoonist rather than an author/illustrator. Do you still read comics? Are there any (for kids, or for adults) that you’d particularly recommend? Or a newspaper strip which you can’t live without?

Mo Willems: Obviously Peanuts and Calvin and Hobbes anthologies are the gold standard. I’m also a huge fan of Richard Thompson’s CUL DE SAC comic strip, which ran for several years before Richard had to retire due to his Parkinson’s disease. The strip is collected in several volumes. It’s quirky, true, and absurd on every panel.

If you want a longer story, Jeff Smith’s BONE is a joy.

Playing by the book: Before becoming a published cartoonist, you worked creating animated films. What freedom was there in film making that there isn’t in book making? What aspects of it did you particularly enjoy and what did you learn from film making which you’ve used in your book making?

Mo Willems: Animation is a great training ground for any illustrator. You have to make an insane number of drawings, so you quickly become fit. The two great lessons from animation are “Never fall in love with a drawing” and “make sure the silhouette of your character expresses his or her emotional state”. Both animation and books are attempts to take scribbles and make them seem to be alive.

Mo and Pigeon on the bus!
Mo and Pigeon on the bus!

Playing by the book: I’ve heard you say you love the fact that books can be any size or shape, whereas films can’t. So where does this leave you with eBooks and Apps, where one could argue you are once again constrained like you were with film making? Are there any apps for your books and what role do you play in their creation?

Mo Willems: No apps of my books are available. Books are books. Electronics are electronics. There is an app featuring my character, the Pigeon. I’m happy to have characters move from one genre to the next, but when it comes to digital I stick to one simple rule; if a kid can leave the room and device keeps going, it’s not for me.

Playing by the book: I’ve got to thank you for bringing a Dutch word into many children’s vocabulary. We’re a Dutch-English bilingual family and my kids ADORE the fact that the Knuffle bunny books are ones they can share with their friends even though it contains some Dutch (albeit with the spelling slightly changed). How much Dutch do you have? Did you grow up speaking it?

Mo Willems: I was conceived on the boat my parents took when the emigrated from Holland to America. My Dutch language comes from being dropped off at my non-English speaking Oma’s place for weeks at a time and having to find a way to get her to lend me her “brommer” (or moped). Obviously, my spelling needs work as “Knuffle” is actually spelled “Knuffel”.

[Click to watch a very brief video of Pigeon on the bus]

Playing by the book: You’ve described your childhood as lonely, and you talk with conviction about childhood being a rather unhappy state a lot of the time. You’ve even gone so far as to describe your own books as tragedies. And yet, your books are incredibly funny. Isn’t there an interesting tension there? Is this relationship – between tragedy and comedy – something you explored, honed during your time as a stand up comedian? What do you think?

Mo Willems: It’s easy to make terrible things funny; just ensure they’re not happening to you.

Playing by the book: Your books appear effortless. Simple lines, minimal text. Why is this apparent effortlessness important to you?

Mo Willems: A story is like a car, nobody cares how it’s made until it breaks down and people don’t leave shows they loved saying, “Boy. That guy really made it look difficult.”

Playing by the book: Dialogue plays a big role in your books, and you’ve talked about how you personally enjoy writers, performers or artists whose focus is dialogue rather than description. I can’t help but wonder if you’ve ever thought about writing stage or radio plays… have you?

Mo Willems: I started out doing radio essays for BBC Radio 5. A few years back I wrote a musical for the Kennedy Center in Washington called KNUFFLE BUNNY: A CAUTIONARY MUSICAL. The show toured around the states and is being produced all around the country. It was so much fun that the Kennedy Center and I are working on a new Elephant and Piggie musical, WE ARE IN A PLAY!, which will premier in November.

Playing by the book: Inspired by you, I’m off now to buy a roll of butcher paper to use as a tablecloth so all the family can doodle this evening at supper time. What other tips do you have for encouraging young writers, illustrators and cartoonists?

Mo Willems: There’s no such thing as a wrong drawing. Doodling is a form of physical empathy. But if you don’t draw, doodle, and experiment along with your kid, they’ll know that you’re lying when you say its important.


Playing by the book: To give us a possible scoop on a future book from you, can you share what as-yet-unpublished characters are you finding yourself doodling most often at the moment?

Mo Willems: I’m excited about THAT IS NOT A GOOD IDEA! which comes out this spring in the States and this fall in the UK. As for my most recent drawings and dining room diner doodles, I post them on my blog regularly and The_Pigeon tweets them even more regularly.

Playing by the book: Thanks so much Mo! Now off to find that roll of paper 🙂

Mo Willems: Have fun.

Here we are just starting our Mo Willem's inspired Doodle Dinner
Here we are just starting our Mo Willems’ inspired Doodle Dinner

Some of the aftermath of our Doodle Dinner
Some of the aftermath of our Doodle Dinner


11 Responses

  1. Barbara Mojica

    This was a fabulous interview. I was always curious about the man behind the book. I have to admit that I was always a bit taken aback by the popularity of Knuffle Bunny with my kindergarten class as I prefer realism in my books. I still kind of hold on to the belief that children should see objects displayed realistically. Now that I know that Mo started out in animation and cartooning, I understand better where he is coming from in in his work.

  2. WendyLady@GoodBooks

    I love your Mo Willems’ inspired doodle dinner! He’s one of my favorite author/illustrators – “Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs” looks hilarious – who else would have thought up a Mama and Papa Dinosaur and “some other Dinosaur who happened to be visiting from Norway” – haha!
    WendyLady@GoodBooks recently posted..Somebunny’s Having an Easter Egg Hunt…

  3. Zoe

    Hi Stacey,
    I just recently introduced my youngest to Elephant and Piggie as she’s just got to the right stage for reading them herself, and she was _squealing_ with delight – you’d have loved to hear her!

    Hi Barbara, really interesting to read your thoughts about realism – would be good to hear more. Have you blogged about it?

    Wendylady – the doodle dinner worked really well, definitely something we’ll be doing again. We used lining paper (for wallpaper).

    Melissa, oh yes, wouldn’t it be great to see the Elephant and Piggie play…. #dreams
    Zoe recently posted..An interview with Mo Willems

  4. Helen

    We are huge fans of The Pigeon so loved this interview, thanks! I like that he is open to digital while recognising it shouldn’t just be a straight book to screen adaptation. Speaking of the app, there are two great features we love, the first is that the child can create their own pigeon story (using the microphone) with any elements they like. secondly, Mo narrates a great tutorial in “how to draw the pigeon” with so much energy and enthusiasm. I would love to see him reading his books aloud.
    Helen recently posted..Four Little Corners

  5. Caroline Lennox

    Zoe, this is a fantastic interview and I’m so pleased your doodle dinner was a great success! Couldn’t stop smiling when Mo talked about playing with the book… when saying goodnight to Megan I always change her name to one of the book characters, I’m not Pigeon… I’m Megan!!!! We’re going to start following The Pigeon on Twitter! Thanks for another fabulous post!
    Caroline Lennox recently posted..Billy’s Bucket: Retelling Prop Craft

  6. zohra jabeen

    I always enjoy your interviews with book people. every time they open up a new reality and new inspiration

  7. Cheryl

    Thanks for doing the interview! Fabulous questions and loved his responses. My 7 year old discovered his books last fall and they were a real gateway to her leap into independent reading. All I can say to MR. Willems is: please sir, can we have some more? 🙂
    Cheryl recently posted..Lamb, Lion, Saviour – Reflections of Faith

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