Mo Willems spent much of his youth telling stories and drawing. After high school, he performed standup comedy in London. He later moved to New York, where he studied film and then switched to animation. For nine years, he worked on "Sesame Street," where he won six Emmy Awards and developed characters such as Suzy Kabloozie. Willems later created "Sheep in the Big City" for the Cartoon Network and "The Off-Beats" for Nickelodeon. His first book, "Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!," won a Caldecott Honor in 2004. The following year, "Knuffle Bunny" won another Caldecott Honor. Among Willems' most recent books are "Pigs Make Me Sneeze! (An Elephant & Piggie Book)" and "Big Frog Can't Fit In," both published in 2009. He lives in Massachusetts.
Previous National Book Festival Appearances
From the 2009 National Book Festival
What sparked your imagination for you recent books – Pigs Make Me Sneeze and Big Frog Can’t Fit In?
The idea of a pop-out book featuring a character who can’t fit in an actual book seemed so odd, I had to try making it. I’d never made a pop-up before, so the technical challenges were an exciting opportunity to learn new stuff. Fortunately, we had a talented and patient paper engineer named Bruce Foster on board to insure that the book wouldn’t explode into a ka-jillion bits the second you breathed on it. As for the new Elephant and Piggie book, they’re my favorite stories to make. I love drawing both of those guys and discovering how they’ll react to different situations. (By the by, the fact that Pigs Make Me Sneeze! is being released during flu season is a pure co-incidence, as is our viral marketing plan…)
You spent your youth telling stories and drawing, and later performed comedy and worked on Sesame Street. What inspired you to write your first children’s book?
I wish I had a more high-falutin’ answer than I wanted to work at home so I could spend more time with my (then) newborn daughter. Obviously, books rock. I dig reading, especially comics, and always have. When it comes to actually making books, because they’re cheaper than TV, there is more freedom to make weird, idiosyncratic stuff. And I’m all about the weird, idiosyncratic stuff…
What challenges do you face in your writing and illustrating process? How do you overcome them?
Each book is a new, marathon of technical and story hiccups. Certainly there are times when I question my ability and/or stamina. I find, however, taking a good hard look at my mortgage usually engenders a renewed vigor to the project I’m working on. So, I keep on keeping on, trusting my editor, wife, and/or agent to tell me if I’ve made something unreadable, which they do from time to time with a seemingly sadistic glee.
How do you decide on themes for your books?
Luckily, themes seem to find stories organically. I just focus on what interests me the most: weird characters and what happens when you put them in even weirder situations. That’s where the fun is. Perhaps I’m being lazy, but I’d rather let my audience’s determine the meaning of my books.
What tips or advice can you share with young students who hope to start writing or drawing?
Stop reading this blather and start writing and drawing; then keep doing it. I can’t emphasize how important it is just to sit down and do the work. And remember, what you’re doing when you write and draw isn’t pretend; it’s real. The only difference between what you’re doing right now and what I do is that you don’t have to give a cut to my agent.
Can you suggest a fun writing or drawing topic to get them started?
Both my daughter and I love adventure stories because they have so many cool things waiting to be put together in new ways: a hero, a villain, powers, counter powers, costumes. And best of all, you can be silly. Another fun one is to start with a story that’s true and quickly add enough craziness that it becomes untrue.
What is your list of favorite children or teen books?
Yikes. There’s so much great stuff out there. Off the top of my head my daughter and I have really been digging Peanuts, Calvin and Hobbes, Jon Scieszka, Fashion Kitty, Castle Waiting, Bone, Roald Dahl, and Camera Girl (a comic my daughter is working on)…
What is your advice to parents for passing the joys of reading on to their children?
Read to yourself and let your kid see how jazzed you are by it. I know it’s hard to believe, but your kids think you’re cool, so if they catch you reading and talking about fun books your read, they’ll give it a go themselves. Oh, and there can never be too much lap time reading, even if they’re big.
If you weren’t creating children’s books, what do you think you would be doing?
I’m not sure, but I hope it would be fun and funny.
Do you have a website where young people can learn more about you and your work?
Sure! I have a blog that shows sketches, doodles, and fantastic kid-made fan mail. There’s also www.pigeonpresents.com, a site filled with info on my books for kids and grown-ups, animated games, video documentaries, and coloring pages. The Pigeon from Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! even “tweets”. You can find them all at www.mowillems.com.