Egged on by the Duckling, the Pigeon unleashes his creativity – and encourages kids to do likewise – in Don’t Let the Pigeon Finish This Activity Book! Published October 2 by Hyperion, the book is illustrated by Mo Willems and written by Willems and Mr. Warburton (aka Tom), author of 1000 Times No and creative director of Disney’s animated TV series, Fish Hooks. The square-format tome weighs in at a hefty 272 pages and is chock-a-block with games, drawing projects, and instructions for making a picture book, staging a puppet show, and “building” an airport, among other activities. Kids can tear out the perforated pages to complete the projects, and store their artistic masterpieces in endpaper pockets.
The Pigeon and Duckling are obviously a popular duo: there are 5.3 million copies in print of Willems’s Pigeon books in the U.S. alone, and Hyperion launched the $19.99 paperback activity book with a 100,000-copy announced first printing. A three-time Caldecott Honor winner, Willems has been contemplating doing an activity book for some time. “I feel very strongly about the power of doodling and creating one’s own stories, but wanted to do a book that was not just activities – but events,” he says. “Since I knew it was a big project, I wanted to do it with someone I really enjoy, so I asked Tom Warburton, a buddy of mine, to collaborate on it.”
The two have what sounds to be a rather spirited history of collaboration. Willems, who began his career (and won six Emmys) as a writer and animator for Sesame Street, worked with Warburton on two Cartoon Network shows that aired between 2000 and 2006. “I was Tom’s boss, then he was mine, and we were terrible to each other while we were on top,” Willems says. “First he was a director on my show, Sheep in the Big City, and then that was canceled to make room for his show, Codename: Kids Next Door. So he said, ‘Now that you’re no longer my boss, and I know how awful you were as that, I want to hire you as my head writer.’ So I became that.”
Creating the activity book was a “highly collaborative” effort, says Willems. “I had outlined the basic idea, and Tom came to visit me here at Knuffle Bunny Manor in Massachusetts, and we beat it out for a while. Then he’d go off to write roughs and we’d make comments on each other’s work. Eventually, we’d be sitting together with hundreds and hundreds of pieces of paper, making sure that the continuity was right and trying to make sense of everything. Like all collaborations, there were two essential elements: one is you must trust people you’re working with, and the second is that it is not a democracy. I was the boss, and that’s why it was fun!”
Pushing the Envelope – Playfully
Also fun for Willems was stretching the limits of the activity book genre. “I’ve always liked the notion of creating books that are not only read, but played with, and this was an opportunity to physicalize that,” he says. “If you’ve done an activity, don’t stop there. If you’ve made puppets, create a show for them. And the perforated pages let kids use the square pages as panels to make something larger. Kids can put them together to make a big sandwich, or build an airport. I really see my job as not to be creative, but to spark creativity, and that’s what I hope this book does.”
The challenge of designing Don’t Let the Pigeon Finish This Activity Book! fell to Scott Sosebee of Sosebee Design in Brooklyn, who also contributed instructional drawings. “He was really great and became our third partner in this,” says Willems. For Sosebee, who has designed marketing materials for Willems’s picture books but had never worked on one, the task was “a little daunting,” he says, “since it’s a huge book with tons of illustrations, games, and puzzles. But it was a great opportunity, and Mo and Mr. Warbuton were awesome to work with. It was an incredibly fun experience and it makes me very happy to hold a finished copy of the book.”
That sentiment is echoed by Christian Trimmer at Disney, who edited the book. “This the first activity book I’d worked on, and it was a bit intimidating at first, but I always had great faith in these authors,” he says. “I’d get rough sketches and weigh in on what was working and how the narrative was connecting, and they would take it from there. It was a challenging but very satisfying project. And when the first finished books arrived, it was a thrill to hold one. That was a very good day!”
Would Willems consider doing additional activity books? “I have quite a full slate of projects, and there isn’t another activity book on it right now,” he says. “I had a great time doing this, and would love to have the opportunity to do something similar again. I’m asked all the time what I’ll do next, and I’m not being disingenuous, but usually I honestly don’t know. And that’s the thrill of it really – that’s part of the adventure.”
Click below to view the book trailer.
Don’t Let the Pigeon Finish This Activity Book! by Mo Willems and Mr. Warburton, illus. by Willems. Hyperion, $19.99 Oct. ISBN 978-1-4231-3310-0