Guilt for dinner: The Mo Willems interview

Photo: Marty Umans

Even in those halcyon days when my wife was pregnant and we didn't know anything about anything, the one thing all of our parent friends thought we should know about was Mo Willems. The former Sesame Street writer won back-to-back Caldecott medals for his books, the exuberantly silly Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus and the strikingly empathic toddler tale Knuffle Bunny. On Friday 6, he delivers the Zena Sutherland Lecture at the Harold Washington Library Center. We phoned him at his home in Brooklyn and chatted about pigeons, stealing from his daughter and Dashiell Hammett.

So you’re delivering the Zena Sutherland Lecture. Are you ready to lecture?
You know, I think it’s going to be a good time. “Lecture” is probably the wrong word. A lot of prestigious people have given this lecture, and I think it’s my job to make them all look better by comparison.

Do you have a sense of what you’re going to talk about?
Yeah, I’m going to talk a little bit about the why of books. Why is it important to read, or even is it important to read?  I think I’ll also tell some stories of my career and some of the things I’ve done with my books. And then I’m going to teach everybody how to draw the pigeon, so that they can infringe on my copyright. And I will end with the world’s worst poem.

I can’t see that going wrong at all.
Right, well it’s a long speech, so I promise to speak very slowly.

When you’re approaching a new book, do you think about what sort of issue a kid might be dealing with, or do you think, wouldn’t it be hilarious if a pigeon wanted to drive a bus?
I think they both happen simultaneously. I’m not an issue-book guy, because I’m not writing manuals, I’m writing stories. I tend to write about things that I don’t know. I wrote one book about potty training, and I’m pretty good at urinating, so that was something that I knew. Besides that, I’m writing about things that still confuse me, like what is a friend? Or how do friendships change when new characters come in or new objects come in? For me, it’s more a question of tending the garden: I’ve got a lot of ideas and I spend a lot of time growing them. I’ve been lucky enough that the turnover is such that when one project is finished something else is far enough along in its growth that I can really get to the job of cutting it down and burning it for profit.

So you’re working on multiple projects at once.
For my most recent book that just came out, Hooray for Amanda and Her Alligator—I have a big roll of butcher paper, so every night at dinner we use a piece of that roll as our tablecloth. And the family sits around and doodles. So I’d been doodling an alligator for a year before it even occurred to me that it might be in a book. So after a year of doodling this alligator, and it becoming more and more refined, I started to realize who the character was. And at the same time I was re-reading Calvin & Hobbes, introducing my daughter to that, and my daughter was of an age that she was interested in chapter books, so all of these things kind of coalesced at the right time so I could sit down and begin the process of making that book.

Speaking of infringing on copyrights, have you ever stolen an idea from your daughter?
No, that’s not theft, because I feed her. So at that point, there’s some sort of contractual obligation that’s being fulfilled. No, you know, if she were to come in and have a great idea for a great book, I would have her make it.

You mentioned that she was at a certain stage where what she was interested in interested you, too. And I have an 18-month-old son, so I’m rediscovering children's books.
That’s great, but you don’t have to go through the process of birthing someone to read picture books.

Well, that’s good, because I didn’t.
Right, well, good for you.

What’s interesting to me is how segmented the books are for infants or toddlers or early readers. When you’re writing a book, do you have an audience in mind?
Well, I want to have as large of an audience as possible, so no.Going back to this new book, it has chapters, so it’s thick like a real book, but it’s not really an easy reader because it’s got a picture book format and it has a lot of imagery. What is it? I don’t know. Hopefully it’s just entertaining. All those little ages from blank to blank that are put on the sides of books? Those are put on there by robots who are built in the Soviet Union. Those have no relevance, because books are not crackers, they don’t have end-of dates at which point they’re no longer good anymore.

My son is a huge fan of the Cat the Cat books.
Oh, that’s awesome.

And I read another interview you’d done, where you said, “Cat the Cat and her pals live in a kind, joyful world.” How much do you flesh out that world?
I think it depends on the stories themselves. If you’re coming up with a Cat the Cat or Elephant and Piggie, those are the only two series that I consciously developed as series, that I knew I would make more than one book of. At that point you’re building a different world, a world closer to television, in that these characters can change and grow, but they have to remain static in their lives. Whereas a book like Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed, there’s a story there, and the character’s different from beginning to end, it’s more like a film.

Novelists are always talking about how they create these deep back stories for their characters, and I think people would be surprised to find out children’s authors do as well.
Absolutely, we do the same work. I think the difference is, and for me what makes novels so ponderous, is that novelists are constantly making you aware of all the work they did. I don’t want to go to a restaurant, and have the chef come out and say, “You know, I spent half an hour cutting that meat, and it was hard to get, I had to go across town.” At that point I’m just having guilt for dinner. I want it to just magically appear on my plate and be delicious. It’s the same with books. If you read one of my books and the take home message is “Boy, that looked really hard he must have spent a lot of time on it,” I’ve kind of failed. If you leave the book thinking Cat the Cat is funny, then I’ve won. If you get a dad who doesn’t really like children’s literature who goes into a bookstore and looks at them and says “Ah, I could have done that in five minutes,” that’s a victory for me. Every book I make, the ink or charcoal should look wet on the page.

Literally, it just came to life. You just turned the page and it just appeared.

Speaking of the dad who’s too cool for children’s literature, you once said that you write books for un-cool people.
Yes, I do. One of the reasons I do is that there are more uncool people, than cool people. It’s just good marketing. Make a book for the #1 kid, you’re going to make one book. There are just more of us than there are of them.

Do you think that opportunity for a parent to be silly with their kid is important?
Absolutely. The most embarrassing thing that our culture has created is embarrassment. That’s the borderline between childhood and adulthood, not anything else. If you forget to be embarrassed you’re all set. That’s what I like about kids, they haven’t gotten around to being embarrassed yet. It’s not a natural thing, it’s a learned behavior.

Speaking of making it look like there’s not a lot of work behind a book. I think one book that people would not feel that way about is Knuffle Bunny.
Oh! Okay.

Because the photographs are really nice and—
Well, everyone thinks those are photographs, but they’re actually heavily doctored digital images. I’ve taken out all the air conditioners, I’ve changed signage, addresses, took out some things, added some things. And no one says, “Oh, what an interesting digital collage,” they say, “Oh, that guy took some pictures and slapped some cartoons on them.

But what impresses me about that book is the huge leap of empathy. Any writer has to occupy the minds of their characters. But to do that for a toddler, to understand how they think, unless you have total recall, that’s hard to pull off.
Thank you. I don’t think you need to have total recall, you just need to have a certain degree of empathy. Look at your office right now. If you were a toddler and walked into that room you’d think “All of this furniture is the wrong size.” And what would it be like if every single room you walked into the furniture was the wrong size. I mean, the furniture is telling you, you really don’t matter. You’re kind of irrelevant, you’re kind of in the way. It stinks.

People think, Hey, I love kids, I want to write children’s books. But they think children are happy. That’s their first mistake.

So do you think you write sad stories?
Are you kidding me? They’re tragedies. I deal in horror. Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus is a horrible book. If the pigeon were ever informed that these books were funny, that’d be doubly insulting. There are people outside, looking in, laughing at his predicament. It’s cruel. It’s sick.

Did you come to writing children’s literature through drawing? You don’t talk like you have a background in child psychology
I came to writing for children through Sesame Street. I got hired as a writer for Sesame Street, and I had done a lot of comedy and been in comedy groups with guys like The State. At that time, we were all in our young 20s, and they had a sketch comedy show, and I didn’t. I really wanted to be on a sketch comedy show, so when I got hired by Sesame Street, I didn’t really think about writing for children, I said, “Hey, I’m writing sketch.”  Because it is, it’s just a sketch show. And there I did learn a lot about childhood development. We had an annual weeklong seminar that was fairly intensive. And after a couple seasons I realized I was having more fun with this than my adult stuff. It was a real turning point for me.

Do you consider yourself more of a comedy writer now?
When I was a kid, I wanted to draw and be funny. Whatever label that is, comedy writer, kids’ book whatever, it’s all good. I fear multiple slashes, "I’m a blank/blank/blankety-blank/blank." I also don’t like the term author-illustrator, because it sounds horrifically pretentious. So I prefer the term cartoonist.

That’s a good one.
I will say that I worked in television for a long time and I didn’t enjoy myself because I was too young and too uptight and too serious about the work, so when I had this opportunity for a second career, I was very conscious that I was going to have a good time.

Are there authors that are influential on your work, whether they be children’s authors or otherwise?
Absolutely. I mean, you get to a certain age where it’s hard to be influenced. You run across someone whose work is really good, you’re jealous. Or angry. So yes, there are people that anger me, no doubt. When I was younger I had a lot of people who influenced me, very few of them children’s books writers. The biggest is probably Charles Schultz, Monty Python, Bill Cosby’s albums were a big deal for me. A lot of radio scripts, like the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy on the radio.

If there’s a through line to that, and it’s really just coming to me now, it’s that I’ve always enjoyed writers or performers or even artists who are basically dealing in dialogue rather than being descriptive. So I like Alexander Calder because he’s not going to make a landscape, he’s going to make a giant moving word bubble. So he’s a huge influence on me. Rothko, I appreciate it, but it doesn’t do anything for me.

Do you think that’s the TV background?
That’s probably how I got into television. I’ve written a couple of short stories, and descriptive prose. But by and large, I’m interested in dialogue. A writer who’s been really influential on me is Dashiell Hammett. He's brilliant. In The Glass Key, the guy has been beaten to a pulp and left in an alley, and the last line of the chapter is, “There was a gleam in his eye. The gleam was not sane.” Do you need more than that? It’s so powerful and so evocative. So that minimalism has always appealed to me both in my work and as a fan.

Follow us

Time Out Chicago on Facebook   Time Out Chicago on Twitter   Time Out Chicago on Instagram   Time Out Chicago on Pinterest   Time Out Chicago on Google Plus   Time Out Chicago on Foursquare   Time Out Chicago on Spotify

Send tips to:

Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)