Mo Willems is accumulating awards so quickly he’s going to have to build a bigger studio! A newcomer to children’s literature, Willems has already received Caldecott Honors for Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus (Hyperion, 2003) and Knuffle Bunny(Hyperion, 2004). Prior to writing and illustrating children’s books, Willems spent nine years as a script-writer and animator for Sesame Street. He’s best known for the Cartoon Network’s Sheep in the Big City and Codename: Kids Next Door, Nickelodeon’s The Off-Beats, and the Suzie Kabloozie shorts on Sesame Street. But the six-time Emmy winner is modest about his success. “Emmy-schmemmy, Caldecott-schmaldecott. A library jammed full of kids yelling, ‘NOOOOO!’ to a pigeon at the top of their lungs is the best award possible.”
Willems says he started drawing comix (graphic stories versus the funny paper comics) as a kid because he was lonely and had an abundance of loose-leaf paper in the house. Born in Chicago only months after his parents emigrated to the U.S. from Holland, Willems devoured the illustrations of the Dutch artist Fiep Westendorp. “I grew up with very few American books, so Fiep’s fantastic, perfectly-posed and gorgeously-colored illustrations were my childhood companions.”
In eighth grade Willems’ teacher, Mrs. Laboisse, unknowingly provided inspiration for comix material with her weekly quizzes on the Sunday paper. “She demanded that her students have a good ‘general fund of knowledge,’” he says.
Willems enrolled in New York University’s Film School, his heart set on studying and making films. “I switched to animation during my first year of film school when I discovered animators don’t need to depend on a surly crew or good weather; not to mention that exotic locations are cheaper to draw than visit.” The creator of over 100 short films and television shows, Willems’ animated stories have appeared on MTV and HBO. He’s also the voice behind many of the characters he creates. In addition to television, his comix have appeared in various newspapers and the DC 9-11 and Bizarro World anthologies.
In the midst of his prolific and varied career, Willems journeyed back to Holland last year and discovered his artistic roots in the books he loved as a child. “Amsterdam [was] festooned with posters for a major Fiep [Westendorp] exhibition. Suddenly, I realized that her illustrations not only inspired me to draw, but inspired me to draw the way I do.”
Willems has always written for children, but in 1998 the challenge of picture books appealed to him. “Books are permanent [and] allow a freedom of expression that TV. . .does not. With a book, I can focus on the illustrations with an attention to detail that animation schedules could not accommodate.” Even with all of his animation experience, publication eluded Willems for two years before his first book, Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus (Hyperion, 2003), was purchased. “Writing for children is as easy as describing the history of the Byzantium in three words,” he quips.
Generally, Willems begins his books with something that makes him laugh—a character, a situation, a doodle, an expression. “After a bit of poking the idea, I begin exploring the main characters in an effort to get to know them.” This process takes between a few months to a few years, but throughout, Willems draws the characters in various situations and writes bits of dialogue. “As the doodles pile up, I begin to discover what makes them tick. The characters assert themselves allowing the story to evolve rapidly.” Once what Willems calls the Controlling Idea comes into focus, he is passionate about staying out of the way letting his readers bring their own experiences to the story thereby determining its meaning.
A Mo Willems book is about taking chances with a new approach, a new idea, a new character. “As a young boy, I asked my father if I could have a cookie. He said, ‘No.’ Then I asked if I could have two cookies. He said, ‘Yes.’ I have lived by the two-cookie rule ever since.”