Mo Willems Talks About His Animal Friends

By Delia O’Hara / Staff Reporter / Chicago Sun-Times

A conversation with Mo Willems is nearly as much fun as one of his many loopy books for little children. Beginning in 2003 with Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, a Caldecott Honor picture book starring a simply drawn, single-minded bird, Willems has racked up an impressive oeuvre of more than 30 books that crack up parents as well as children.

The last book in Willems’ prize-winning Knuffle Bunny trilogy is scheduled for release in the fall; the Kennedy Center in New York commissioned Willems to write “Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Musical,” which will debut at the center in May and then tour. The Elephant and Piggie series for early readers has 13 books, and the pigeon stars in half-dozen books as well, including two board books.

Now Willems is launching a series for pre-schoolers starring a winsome kitten in a mauve dress. Cat the Cat: Who Is That? and Let’s Say Hi to Friends Who Fly, the first two books in the series, debuted last week.

We caught up with the writer/illustrator in a phone interview from his studio in western Massachusetts.

Q. You’re writing for really young children now, with the Cat the Cat series.

A. These are consciously the youngest books I’ve done. The fun for me is putting as little as possible into them and making them work. Let’s Say Hi to Friends Who Fly is set in a playground, for example, but I never say, “Oh, we’re in a playground.” The point of entry for the child is to make that discovery. It should be fun.

Q. What was your family like?

A. I was an only child. After I was born, my mom didn’t want to be at home all the time, so she and my father decided, “Let’s take a pottery course!” They were both in their mid-30s. Neither of them had been to college before. Mom liked college, and went on to law school. Dad became a potter. We moved to New Orleans, where mom was an attorney and dad was home throwing pottery — but not as a form of political expression. It was just what we did. It seemed very normal, but it did add to the multiple layers of eccentricity. Accountancy was not in the cards for me.

Q. New Orleans seems like the most exotic place in America to grow up. What was that like for you?

A. It’s a good place to hit puberty, no doubt about that. I managed to become buddies with a guy who ran a big blues bar. My job as a teenager was to go in and dance with his wife, because he had a heart condition. That was the life I lived there. What made New Orleans interesting, and was important to me growing up there, was that it embraced eccentrics and it liked a good story. Everybody would sit around in a bar and tell stories, and after a while, they would go out and do something colossally stupid, and then they would come back and tell stories about it.

Q. What brought you to your first job in children’s television, writing for “Sesame Street”?

A. I was living in New York after college. I was making animated films for grownups and doing comedy. I wanted to write sketch comedy, and I was invited to audition for “Sesame Street.” They wanted sketch writers. They could teach people to write for children, but they couldn’t teach them to be funny. It was a really young, great place to work. I was there for nine years. It changed the direction of my life.

Q. Do you have kids?

A. I have a daughter, Trixie, who’s 8. The Knuffle Bunny is based on my daughter; it’s semi-autobiographical, a true story except for the parts that aren’t. But I wrote for children long before I had a child. I rankle at the idea that having kids makes you more likely to be a children’s author. I take writing for children with great seriousness. Ted Geisel (Dr. Seuss) didn’t have children and he was a great children’s author. Now, the reason I’m doing books is because I had a child. I wanted to be home. I was working in television, not seeing my child, and it was frustrating.

Q. Was the transition easy?

A. Writing books brought on a huge change in my life, like my dad changing one business for another. It took 2 1/2 years. My experience in animation, the Emmys I had won, meant nothing. I sent Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus to something like 28 editors. They all said it was “unusual,” but the 28th didn’t think “unusual” was a pejorative. It had success fairly early on, won a Caldecott Honor. People who had resisted it looked at it a second time. Librarians embraced the wackiness.

Q. I notice the pigeon shows up in all your books.

A. I have no control over that character. He can’t stand it when I do a book that’s not about him so he sneaks into those books.

Q. Will there be another book about him?

A. Well, not soon, but I have notebooks full of the pigeon being fairly ornery toward me.

Chicago Sun-Times 02/21/10