There comes a time in every parent’s life when reading that same bedtime story every night for weeks gets more than a little tedious. But for some reason, the tedium just isn’t there on the tenth reading of a book by Mo Willems, a man whose simple, silly story lines and drawings appeal to kids, parents and librarians alike.
Willems, a father himself in western Massachusetts, has become a literary giant among toddlers, preschoolers and kindergartners. He spent nine years as an Emmy Award-winning writer and animator for PBS’ Sesame Street before starting to write and illustrate children’s books a decade ago.
Willems’ first book, Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!, became a New York Times bestseller and received a Caldecott Honor in 2004. Since then, the persistent pigeon has appeared in several sequels, including Don’t Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late! and The Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog!
As the pigeon marks 10 years in print this year, Willems has more than 40 children’s books under his belt, including the equally popular Knuffle Bunny and Elephant & Piggie series. On June 22, 2013, the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst (www.carlemuseum.org) will open an eight-month exhibit featuring 100 works by Willems, including illustrations from his books. The exhibit will coincide with special events, including a book signing by Willems on June 23 and a “Mo Willems Day at the Carle” on July 13.
Willems recently shared with us some insight into his work and his young readers:
Why a pigeon?
Willems: A hippopotamus wouldn’t fit on the page and all the mice and bears and bunnies were busy calculating how much they love each other.
How do you know or decide when a particular children’s book that you’re writing is done?
Willems: There’s nothing mystical about a deadline, but it sure does help to focus one’s attention. The truth is that on every book we’re refining, rewriting and reworking elements right until the very end. Sometimes improvements can only be spotted late in the game.
Many of your books have a delightful twist at the end. Do you know what the twist will be when you start to write?
Willems: Stories are grown, rather than made. Sometimes they grow forwards. Sometimes they grow backwards. Sometimes they grow in all directions. I’m not too picky about how my stories grow because all too often, they don’t grow at all and you’re left with a bunch of fertilizer.
What children’s books meant a lot to you growing up?
Willems: As a kid I was as lonely as Charlie Brown, as philosophical as Linus, as self-centered as Lucy and as coordinated as Woodstock, so those Peanuts collections that I picked up at the local K&B drugstore and lunch counter for 75 cents were a perfect fit. I also dug Spiderman in the mid and late ’70s. It was like reading about Charlie Brown with superpowers.