Kids' Author Mo Willems Has A New Creative Challenge (And So Should You)

Jul 2, 2019
Originally published on July 2, 2019 6:19 am

Mo Willems feels like he's going back to second grade. The acclaimed children's author is the first ever Education Artist-in-Residence at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and even with all his awards and bestsellers, he says it's pretty scary.

"I get to be really, really terrified in all kinds of new different ways," Willems says — but that doesn't mean he's not having fun. "There are all these sandboxes that I don't usually get to play in."

Willems — who created the Pigeon series, Knuffle Bunny, and Elephant & Piggie — is exploring all sorts of artistic sandboxes at the Kennedy Center. He's collaborating with Ben Folds on a "symphonic spectacular"; he's working with Jason Moran on a Jazz Doodle Jam; and he's adapting Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus into a musical.

In addition to delighting kids, Willems hopes he'll inspire some grown-ups, too. Children will create if they see the adults around them creating, he says — and it doesn't matter if you're "good."

"There's no such thing as a wrong doodle. There's no such thing as a wrong cartoon. You can't listen to music incorrectly," he says.

Willems talks with NPR about his creative process, shares some advice for parents, and explains why Pigeon is actually like Sophocles.


Interview Highlights

On why you should draw with your kids

If you really want your kid to be artistic — to draw, and to be empathetic, and to be musical, you have to do those things. You have to be sitting there drawing. You have to be modeling this stuff. When you ask your kid to be musical, you must be musical.

I think sometimes the greatest thing you can say to a kid if a kid says, 'Hey Mom, will you do this for me?' or 'Make me a sandwich,' or something — say, 'Not now, I'm drawing.' - Mo Willems

There is this day that happens in almost everybody's life where they realize they're not going to be a professional basketball player and they're not going to be a professional cartoonist. And it's a heartbreaking day, but kids still play basketball. And that's because Dad is still playing basketball. If Dad was still drawing, kids would still be drawing. ...

I think sometimes the greatest thing you can say to a kid if a kid says, "Hey Mom, will you do this for me?" or "Make me a sandwich," or something — say, "Not now, I'm drawing."

On his Pigeon character

I don't know if I can explain him — I can describe him. Pigeon has wants and needs and desires, and he has very few filters. He wants what he wants, he thinks he needs what he needs. He is railing at the injustice of it all. And the irony is that the kids who are usually suffering the injustice of it all, the kids who are being told when to go to bed, or what to do, or to eat, or how to eat, or how to dress — the second they get to stick it to the pigeon, they do. ...

I didn't think I was going to write another Pigeon book ... but he hides in all my other books, and is sort of poking at my brain, just getting angry that I'm, you know, exploring other avenues. ...

I try to think that the Pigeon is a core, fundamental, philosophical being. He is asking the fundamental, deep questions: What is love? Why are things the way they are? Why can't I get what I want? Why can't I drive a bus? I mean, you know, Sophocles.

On the newest Pigeon book, Pigeon HAS to Go to School!

For me, the last couple of years — just in terms of the news and the culture — there's been all this uncertainty. And every day you wake up and you really don't know what's going to happen next. And I started to realize that that is not unlike having to go to school. There's this whole new paradigm that you are ill-prepared for. And that has to bring up certain emotions and fears and passions.

So my pigeon — I just, like, make him have a terrible time. I put him in that situation. And unlike the other books, he has no choice here. He has to live that uncertainty. So it is The Pigeon HAS to Go to School! — which is not The Pigeon Doesn't Want to Go to School. ... He has, for the first time in his short pigeon-y life, no choice. ...

The books really, for me, are philosophical questions, and what's interesting to me is not the answer — it is the question. And so there are certain characters that I've created that have shown me things about myself. I mean, ultimately, I'm writing letters to myself that I'm asking you to buy.

On his creative process

It's ultimately reductive, but my sort of cheat sheet is: If you were to look at all of my drawings [for a book] without any words and understand it, then there are too many drawings. The drawings are too detailed. And if you were to read the entire manuscript and it made sense, then there are too many words.

So it's that marriage, that very delicate marriage between words and pictures, and then that marriage between author and audience where the audience is creating so much of the meaning. So my job is to create incomprehensible books for illiterates.

On what he loves about writing kids' books

I've had multiple careers that sort of poked into this direction. I think that the reason that children's books work for me is that while I like to do all kinds of crazy things, ultimately I am an introvert. I'm happiest alone in my studio, talking to my characters, and being with them and exploring them. I find life extraordinarily perplexing. And I've been around for thousands of years, so I can only imagine what somebody who's just showed up to the party is dealing with. And so, for me to be able to ask these questions in a wider way is liberating. ...

[Working as an artist in residence at the Kennedy Center,] I'm collaborating. Suddenly I am not the smartest guy in the room because I'm not the only guy in the room — and there are all these other people who are bringing new ideas to the table and that's invigorating and that's exciting. I'm extraordinarily lucky to be able to spend my life thinking and drawing.

On his projects at the Kennedy Center

Almost all of the projects are based on seeing my characters do something different. So, be in a play, or be in a piece of music, or be in a piece of dance. And for me, really the kind of guiding light for what I'm trying to accomplish there are two things: what I'm trying to accomplish for myself is to just terrify myself, which we're doing pretty well. And what I'm trying to accomplish for the audience is this idea that, you know, we constantly hear, "Our children are the future," but we seldom say, "Hey we're the present and it's incumbent on us to be present." So there's this silliness, but there's also a, "You can do it, too."

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Mo Willems is an acclaimed children's author whose characters have engaged a generation of kids. He's won all kinds of awards, had bestsellers. He is at the top of his game, but even Mo Willems can suffer a touch of irrational imposter syndrome. When the Kennedy Center came calling and asked if he'd like to be their first-ever education artist in residence, he said, yes, of course, but he was also a bit freaked out.

MO WILLEMS: What it means is I get to be really, really terrified in all kinds of new, different ways.

MARTIN: One of the challenges was to take one of his most beloved characters, Pigeon, from the page to the stage in the form of a musical. We visited Willems and some of the cast during the first rehearsals for "Don't Let The Pigeon Drive The Bus! (The Musical)."

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (Singing) Maybe I would feel aliver (ph) if I could be like that driver.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (Singing) I love being...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (Singing) The bus driver.

MARTIN: The show, based on his popular "Pigeon" series, will hit the Kennedy Center later this year. In the meantime, Mo Willems has a new "Pigeon" book out today. It's called "The Pigeon HAS To Go To School!"

Mo Willems is a creative mind in the truest sense. He sees wonder and poignancy in the most simple of things, and he can turn them into stories for kids about big philosophical questions, which is why he told me he'd leapt at the chance to collaborate at the Kennedy Center.

WILLEMS: There are all these sandboxes that I don't usually get to play in - you know, the National Symphony Orchestra or jazz with Jason Moran or various other forms. And so for me, it's kind of like going to second grade. Like, I have some basic literacy skills in what I do, but I really don't know what I'm doing. And I get to be in all of these rooms - these collaborative rooms with people who understand their mediums. And I think I understand my characters, and we get to just sort of make new stuff.

MARTIN: So as part of this - like you say, you get to just play in all kinds of different sandboxes, but some of the toys are the same. Can I draw this metaphor? Like, you get to use your characters - your well-beloved...

WILLEMS: I get to play with my characters.

MARTIN: ...Characters.

WILLEMS: Yes.

MARTIN: Right.

WILLEMS: Almost all of the projects are based on seeing my characters do something different - so be in a play or be in a piece of music or be in a piece of dance. And for me, really, the kind of guiding light for what I'm trying to accomplish - there are two things. What I'm trying to accomplish for myself is just terrify myself, which I'm doing pretty well. And what I'm trying to accomplish for the audience is this idea that, you know, we constantly hear how children are the future, but we seldom say, hey, we're the present. And it's incumbent on us to be present. So if you really want your kid to be artistic, to draw and be empathetic and to be musical, you have to do those things.

MARTIN: Whoa.

WILLEMS: You have to be sitting there drawing. You have to be modeling this stuff.

MARTIN: You can't assume that they're just going to get it. If you tell them it's important to have in their life, you...

WILLEMS: You're a liar.

MARTIN: You have to do the thing.

WILLEMS: You're a liar if you don't do it. You know, drawing is physicalized empathy. When you're drawing a character, you're thinking about who that character is. You're empathizing with that character. And so if you're telling a child to do that and you don't do that, they can smell it. They smell that you're lying.

MARTIN: They do. But they can, can't they? Who did you first empathize with through drawing - who or what?

WILLEMS: You know, for me, the touchstone is always going to be "Peanuts" and Charlie Brown and Snoopy because Charlie Brown was easy to draw, and his life was worse than mine. Like, it was terrible. And you could just sit there and just watch him go through misery. I think the worst thing you could've done to Charlie Brown was to say that your life is in four panels. And while you think it's a tragedy, everyone in the world is laughing at you.

And the Pigeon is the same. I mean, the Pigeon - if you were to tell the Pigeon that his books were funny, oh, you would break his little molty (ph) heart (laughter).

MARTIN: Can you - for people who don't know Pigeon, can you just explain him?

WILLEMS: Oh, the Pigeon has wants and needs and desires, and he has very few filters. He wants what he wants. He thinks he needs what he needs. He is railing at the unjustice (ph) of it all.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (Singing) My hopes are thwarted. I'm broken-hearted, and I'm only starting to see what is true. It's so very much that I'm never due...

MARTIN: Well, amidst all these new projects, you've given Pigeon another chapter. I mean, you...

WILLEMS: I have. I didn't think I was going to write another "Pigeon" book ever, really. He hates it when I don't make books about him, and that's why the Pigeon...

MARTIN: Is he a little bit narcissistic, Pigeon?

WILLEMS: Oh, he's terrible. He's terrible character.

MARTIN: He gets jealous. So...

WILLEMS: He is jealous.

MARTIN: So you paid attention to him again.

WILLEMS: Well, you know, I try to think that the Pigeon is a core, fundamental, philosophical being. He is asking the fundamental deep questions. And I usually look at my books from questions that I have - philosophical questions that I don't have the answer to. So for me, the last couple years have just - in terms of the news and the culture - have been - there's been all this uncertainty.

MARTIN: Yeah.

WILLEMS: You know, every day, you wake up, and you really don't know what's going to happen next. And I started to realize that that is not unlike having to go to school. There's this whole new paradigm that you are ill-prepared for. And the - that has to bring up certain emotions and fears and passions. So I put him in that situation. And unlike the other books, he has no choice here. He has to live that uncertainty.

MARTIN: Yeah.

WILLEMS: So it is "The Pigeon HAS To Go To School!"

MARTIN: Why do you want to do this for a living?

WILLEMS: I'm terrible at so many things (laughter).

MARTIN: I don't believe you for some reason.

WILLEMS: It's ultimately reductive.

MARTIN: You could have done other things, though, that are similar. You definitely explored comedy.

WILLEMS: Yeah.

MARTIN: You were a writer for "Sesame Street." You could've gone into multimedia or television. What is it about the act of writing...

WILLEMS: Well, books are sculptures.

MARTIN: Yeah.

WILLEMS: Books are sculptures, and they're incredibly intimate. I am lucky enough to have written books that may be the first book that a child has read on their own, which is an incredible empowerment, you know?

MARTIN: Do you ever run out of ideas?

WILLEMS: Oh - I mean, do I have a special wall that I bang my head against? Yes.

MARTIN: That's what happens.

WILLEMS: I do. Yeah. But I feel fortunate to love my work and to be a neurotic.

MARTIN: How does your neuroses help?

WILLEMS: Well, because they bring up questions. I'm - you're never going to run out of questions about how to be who you want to be, how to be the best you, how to be kinder or to understand more. I mean, we live in such a complex yet beautiful world, and it's such a gift that - to be able to feel around all the edges of that, it certainly takes a lifetime.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Mo Willems - his new book is called "The Pigeon HAS To Go To School!" Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.