Don’t Let the Pigeon Stop You From
Interviewing Mo Willems Before Breakfast!

h1 September 4th, 2007 by Eisha and Jules

We here at 7-Imp felt like it was some sort of small crime that we hadn’t yet interviewed Mo Willems, because he is one of our favorite author/illustrators and has been since he started creating books. We are grateful that he stopped by to rectify this matter (especially during 7-Imp’s random declaration of Picture Book Week), even though we’re sure he has the busiest of schedules right now.

If you are a devoted reader of our blog, that means you probably really care about and keep up with children’s literature. And if that’s the case, that means you’ve likely heard of Mo. Chances are, you (and your children and/or your students) already know and love Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!, his picture book debut in 2003, for which he was awarded a 2004 Caldecott Honor, and the series of Pigeon books that followed, including The Pigeon Finds a Hotdog! (2004) and Don’t Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late! (2006)The Pigeon Has Feelings, Too! -- published in 2005, all published by Hyperion. Child readers can easily identify with the persistent Pigeon and what this Caldecott blurb from ALA amusingly calls the “emotional blackmail” he puts to use in order to get what he wants, while — at the same time — as a School Library Journal review of Don’t Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late! put it, “{y}oungsters are thrust into the role of caregiver as the puerile pigeon attempts to talk his way out of the inevitable, coming up with requests that range from manipulative . . . to cajoling . . . to classic.” Ask any children’s librarian anywhere, and they’ll likely say: Just how exactly did we get by at story times before these wonderful read-alouds which invite audience participation from the children, giving them a chance to turn the tables and yell “NO!” repeatedly and enthusiastically?

And then in 2005, Mo was awarded a second Caldecott Honor for Knuffle Bunny (Hyperion), “a hilarious epic drama of miscommunication” (ALA blurb again — who writes those great things?) and what he calls at his site a “semi-autobiographical story” about a toddler named Trixie who joins her daddy on a laundromat errand in their Brooklyn neighborhood, only to leave her beloved stuffed bunny in the washing machine. And, well, we feel silly even describing it to you, ’cause if you love children’s lit, you’ve likely read this book (unless you’ve been living in a laundry machine) with its sepia-toned photographs upon which are superimposed cartoon drawings of people. Booklist called it a “comic gem” to which a lot of children and their parents all over this country responded: Word. (Knuffle Bunny was also made into a Carnegie Medal-winning animated short, featuring the voices of the entire Willems’ gang and some pretty kickin’ jazz by Robert Reynolds and Scotty Huff).

We at 7-Imp — as well as, again, the rest of the country — are also in love with Mo’s other titles: Time to Pee! (oh yes, this has aided many a parent — including one-half of 7-Imp here — through the dreaded potty training), published in 2003 by Hyperion; Time to Say “Please”! (2005; Hyperion); Your Pal Mo Willems Presents Leonardo the Terrible Monster (2005; Hyperion), a 2006 ALA Notable Children’s Book, which Booklist praised for its “smart, striking design” and School Library Journal for its perfect pace; and Edwina, the Dinosaur Who Didn’t Know She Was Extinct, published last year by Hyperion and reviewed here at 7-Imp last September by Eisha.

And now the thoroughly entertaining and completely-winning-in-every-way (as we determined in our recent co-review) sequel to Knuffle Bunny is out. Yes, it’s Knuffle Bunny Too: A Case of Mistaken Identity (Hyperion), and Trixie’s a pre-schooler now who finds out the hard way that her Knuffle Bunny isn’t as one-of-a-kind as she had previously thought. How Knuffle Bunny Too manages to be a great sequel and a fabulous book in its own right is a testament to Mo’s talent, and . . . well, you can read our co-review if you want more details on what we love about it.

Mo has also created a new series of beginning readers for children, the Elephant & Piggie books, which began publication this year. As Mo’s site summarizes it well, they are the tales of a pessimistic elephant and an optimistic pig, and they are spot-on funny and we at 7-Imp cheer loudly for these entertaining beginning readers (a phenomenon hard to come by, really). In fact, soon we will be reviewing the two new Elephant & Piggie books, I Am Invited to a Party! and There Is a Bird on Your Head! (along with the first two titles, My Friend Is Sad and Today I Will Fly! — all are published by Hyperion), with our guest reviewer Pam Coughlan, a.k.a. MotherReader — arguably, the biggest MoFan in the kidlitosphere. (How can we not review them with MoReader?). So, that is to come soon at 7-Imp, but suffice it to say for now that Elephant and Piggie are a pretty engaging duo who will have you laughing out loud. Just two more Mo Willems’ characters to love. Excellent. We still have room in our hearts.

You know what sums up all the critical praise the best? That would be when The New York Times Book Review called Mo “the biggest new talent to emerge thus far in the 00’s.” (Booklist also called him “the Dr. Spock and Robin Williams of the lap-sit crowd.” Okay, we see that, too).

Last year, Mo also released a title for adults, You Can Never Find a Rickshaw When It Monsoons (Hyperion), an annotated cartoon journal sketched during Mo’s year-long voyage around the world in 1990-91.

Mo began his career as a writer and animator for television, having garnered six Emmy awards for his writing on “Sesame Street” and having created Cartoon Network’s “Sheep in the Big City,” which ran for two seasons. He also head-wrote “Codename: Kids Next Door.” He addresses his educational-television background a bit in the interview below . . .

. . . which we won’t keep you from any longer. Thanks again to Mo for stopping by!

* * * * * * *

7-Imp: You have done or currently are doing writing, animating, cartooning/illustrating, wire sculpting, pottery, and heaven only knows what else. Is there anything you can’t do in the arts? Do you know how to knit toaster cozies? Seriously, which of all your impressive adventures in the arts do you find most satisfying?

Mo: You flatter me. Hopefully, I will be most satisfied by whatever my next aesthetic adventure has in store for me.

7-Imp: How does your background as a writer and animator in educational television affect your work today?

Mo: It makes me happy to be out of the TV biz.

My “sensibility” is certainly a product of animating and writing literally hundreds of short films and TV episodes over 15 years. The work allowed me to hone my meager skills in relative anonymity and made me a better craftsman, which I’m grateful for.

Television animation is a time-consuming and expensive medium, filled with long hours of unglamorous work, which isn’t so bad in and of itself. But as cable has conglomerated, experimentation and individual expression have fallen somewhat by the wayside. Few networks today would have the inclination to bankroll shows like THE OFF-BEATS or SHEEP IN THE BIG CITY in today’s climate, and I doubt I’d have the inclination to go back to 10 hour, 7 day work weeks for creations that I don’t own or control.

Short answer: books rock.

cover for Edwina, The Dinosaur Who Didn't Know She Was Extinct

Cover for Edwina, The Dinosaur Who Didn’t Know She Was Extinct; 2006.

7-Imp: You seem to go out of your way to be a very accessible author/illustrator (with your site and blog and such); your web site has a lot of wonderful information. Do you believe strongly in authors providing that accessibility to their readers? Do you feel writers owe that to their audiences?

Mo: I ‘owe’ my audiences good books.

The web is additive; it allows myself and my publisher to reach out to kids and adults who either want more information or to have a bit of fun with my characters. Additionally, in an age of Wikis and whatnot it’s important to ensure that fans can get accurate Mo-fo.

One thing I love is getting mail (snail and e), particularly from kids. But, for all my garrulous behavior, I am at heart a private person.

It’s a tenuous balance between working in a vacuum and working in a fishbowl.

7-Imp: We read in an interview that you wanted to try early readers, since a lot of other authors bemoaned how hard they are to write. Did you find that to be true?

Mo: Indeed. But the limitations turned out to be quite liberating; I’ve been consistently, pleasantly surprised by how much can be said with a handful of mono-syllabic words.

7-Imp: We read that the animated short for Knuffle Bunny Two is already being created. Are the same award-winning folks that created the first short involved in this one, too?

Mo: Yes and no. Weston Woods is producing (this is our 3rd animated short together) and we’ve retained the same voice cast (my daughter seems to be made primarily of ham). But, the animator from the first Knuffle Bunny short had to bow out because of a scheduling conflict. Luckily, an animator pal who’s worked for me or with me for over 10 years, Karen Villarreal, signed on. The voices were recorded this summer and Karen should start work in the fall.

Additional good news for Knuffle Bunny fans is that the first film is going to be released on DVD for the home video market at the end of September.

7-Imp: We think it’s particularly brilliant of you to have the let-my-books-be-played (as opposed to merely being read) philosophy, this idea that you encourage children to draw your characters for their own adventures and that you want them to experience your books in that way (“The only rule that I’ve given myself is that the star of my books must be designed so a 5 year-old can make a reasonable copy of it,” you’ve said before) — and that you share these drawings at your blog. It must feel really rewarding to empower children in that way. Does it?

Mo: I don’t empower children, they empower themselves. I just show them how to draw neurotic birds. Their drawings are cool to see, tho’.

7-Imp: Did you get to see the Big Wooden Horse’s musical children’s theatre adaptation of Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! in Edinburgh ? If so, how was it? Any plans for other titles to be adapted to the stage?

Mo: I caught a show in Brooklyn this spring and got a kick out of seeing a massive theatre filled with kids yelling their little lungs out whenever the Pigeon reared her bobbily head. Big Wooden Horse hopes to produce a sequel based on THE PIGEON FINDS A HOT DOG! and DON’T LET THE PIGEON STAY UP LATE!, which I’m all for.

As for myself, I’d love to write a musical based on the Knuffle Bunny books at some point, but right now my slate is full.

7-Imp: We thought this comment from you (at your blog) about comic books for children was pretty funny: “Now if we could just get rid of the horrible expression that sounds like gore splattered Jane Austen: ‘The Graphic Novel.’ Ugh.” Do you have a strong opinion about the so-called “graphic novel trend” in children’s lit? It seems to get labelled a trend, though graphically-sequenced books and comics for children have been around a long time. Are you ultimately happy (no matter how it’s viewed) that comics and “graphic novels” suddenly have this huge spotlight on them?

Mo: Happily, I retain a healthy ignorance of trends and whatnot. As a comix fan, I’d say the more the merrier, with the caveat that just because something’s written in sequential illustrations doesn’t mean it’s automatically good…

7-Imp: What jazz music is currently in rotation on your iPod or loaded in your CD player? Do you listen while you create books?

Mo: Symphonic music usually follows the same structure as a good story, which I find be helpful when writing. Otherwise, my rule used to be that I’d only listen to musicians who were dead or from New Orleans, but I’ve softened my position as old timers like Paul Simon seem reluctant to kick the bucket for my axiom.

7-Imp: We like to ask people the wonderfully weird set of questions called The Pivot Questionnaire (made famous by its use on “The Actors Studio”), since who knew that, say, asking someone what sound or noise they love could tell you so much about them. Here goes . . .

* * *

7-Imp: What is your favorite word?

Mo: “Zazz”.

For now “Zazz” is merely the name for a local brand of seltzer, but I have high hopes for “Zazz”. Perhaps one day it can go head to head with such linguistic super stars as “Hip” and “Casserole.”

7-Imp: What is your least favorite word?

Mo: “Casserole.”

7-Imp: What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?

Mo: People who are zazzed by what they do and do it well.

7-Imp: What turns you off?

Mo: Conventional Wisdom (an oxymoron to be sure).

7-Imp: What is your favorite curse word? (optional)

Mo: “Zazz.”

7-Imp: What sound or noise do you love?

Mo: Laffs.

7-Imp: What sound or noise do you hate?

Mo: Cars. Alarms. Car alarms.

7-Imp: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

Mo: Flying Superhero.

7-Imp: What profession would you not like to do?

Mo: Underwater Superhero. The others would just laugh at my ‘power’ of talking to squid.

7-Imp: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

Mo: “I’ll be with you in a minute, I’ve got to clean up some of the mess I just made. Zazz.”

* * * * * * *

Need more Mo-fo?

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22 comments to “Don’t Let the Pigeon Stop You From
Interviewing Mo Willems Before Breakfast!”

  1. Man, no wonder we all love Mo. He’s just a regular guy and so down-to-earth. Thanks for the fab interview ladies. It’s ZAZZ! (This one could compete with JOKES!)


  2. “It’s a tenuous balance between working in a vacuum and working in a fishbowl.” I love that quote. Except I’m imagining a certain pigeon attempting to climb into a vacuum cleaner or a fishbowl. NO! NO!


  3. “It’s a tenuous balance between working in a vacuum and working in a fishbowl.” So true.

    Phenomenal interview, ladies!!


  4. “it’s important to ensure that fans can get accurate Mo-fo.”

    Am I the only one who gave an immature snicker to that?

    Great interview, E & J! You really know how to snag the superstars!

    And Mo, we would not make fun of your ability to speak to squid. Go ahead and own your gift.


  5. I nominate this post for a spotlight submission for the September Carnival of Children’s Literature. Congratulations on a stellar interfview! As someone who’s watching the Justice League and Justice League Unlimited series, I can appreciate not wanting to be an underwater superhero who gets laughed at for his or her “power” of talking to squid (though remember that one of PPG Blossom’s superpowers is speaking Spanish!). Fortunately, Aquaman in the JL is a rough, gruff kind of guy who brooks no nonsense and is willing to hack off a hand to save his child (hence the hook in subsequent episodes). See, Mo, you and Aquaman have a lot in common after all!


  6. “I just show (kids) how to draw neurotic birds.”
    Right. I mean, somebody has to.
    thanks for this funniness…


  7. P.S. I can’t believe I wrote that comment with THREE exclamation points. I blame the Pigeon.

    P.P.S. I am Going to a Party is one of my favorite Readers. Georgie really does know parties.


  8. MY GOD, THAT BOOK IS FUNNY, Alkelda. And so is My Friend is Sad. I mean, the slapstick. O! The slapstick! My three-year-old and I are usually doubling over with laughter every time we read them. Yes, every time. They don’t even get old.


  9. Hilarious! I loved the interview.

    ZAZZ.


  10. Wow. So through, so funny, so so perfect. I’m blown away.


  11. My kids love Mo’s books. The slapstick. The pictures. Zazz.


  12. Complements of Alkelda, here is Aquamo!


  13. I just revisited these comments on a whim, and boy was I richly rewarded.

    Aquamo. Alkelda, you slay me.


  14. The committees write those ALA blurbs! It’s definitely one of the most fun parts of being on the committee (well, it’s ALL fun, really). Anne, who was on the Caldecott in 2005.


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