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.
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.
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.”