Mo Willems has built a career on the backs (and wings, paws and ears) of a crew of animals, from his boisterous Pigeon to unlikely best friends Elephant and Piggie. In next month's Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed, Willems introduces a new animal—Wilbur, a pink, buck-toothed naked mole rat, who unlike the rest of his subterranean kin, actually likestowear clothing. Bookshelf spoke with Willems about the process of turning animals into cartoons (even when they’re ugly), seeing his artwork in a museum exhibition, and cartooning for radio, among other topics.

Mo Willems.
Photo: Marty Umans.

So, I’ve looked up pictures of real naked mole rats. They’re kind of terrifying. What made you decide to feature these creatures in your new picture book?

Unfortunately, the answer to most questions I get is, “Because it’s funny.” Just like the pigeon, I suppose, naked mole rats weren’t taken. Bunnies and mice and cute little piggies—they’re pretty much taken. Also, I thought it was time to do an underground story.

I’m not sure if it’s the teeth or the wrinkly skin that’s more upsetting.

They do look like members of my extended family.

Was the fact that there’s a fun adjective in the animal’s name a factor?

Absolutely—it’s a funny name for an animal. A bear isn’t called a furry tooth bear, so certainly there’s a play on words there that made it fun.

But your naked mole rats are actually cute. Do you try to capture certain innate qualities of animals when using them in your books?

I’m always trying to do as little as possible, because I want my audience to put in as much as possible. In this case, the formal challenge was to be able to show emotion without a mouth. You can’t tell if they’re smiling or frowning. You have to do it entirely through body language.

I’m not sure if it was an influence or not, but while I was working on this book, I had gone to the Charles Schulz museum. I got to meet Jean Schulz, Sparky’s widow, and they gave me one of his nibs, which I used. The characters kind of “Snoopified” after a while. There’s something so ungainly about naked mole rats. Since I couldn’t make them ugly, I decided to make their heads as big as possible—like one small tremor and they would all topple over. They are precarious in their posture.

Have you had the chance to read this book to kids yet?

I have. I’ve read the F&G to a few groups of kids. It’s always interesting to see their responses. They react to things you wouldn’t expect them to, and don’t react to things you think they would. All the other naked mole rats yelling “Ew!” and “Gross!” [upon seeing Wilbur in clothing] seems to be hilarious, which is gratifying.

But despite the G-rated nudity, this seems at heart a fairly straightforward story about being true to yourself. What’s your take on the best way to present a “message” in a story? How much does that factor in when you’re putting a book together, if at all?

I almost try not to put a message in a book, because I want the audience to come to it and find out what they think about it. What I’m interested in is seeing what they think this story is about. It’s certainly a book about community. I’m usually wrong when I say what my books are about, but in my mind, if there’s anything there I was bringing to it, it was a plea for moderation. It’s not a book where, at the end, everyone is dressed. It’s not about changing opinions from right to wrong. Hopefully it’s more subtle and more peaceable.

In addition to this book, you have a number of things on your plate. On your blog,you mention that your first solo exhibition recently opened in Abilene, Texas. How did that go?

It was weird. It was really weird. Here are all these drawings that are really sort of pieces of equipment—rough drawings. They’re like my tools. To see them all prettified, it’s sort of like seeing your hammer at the prom. When I got there I decided to just start drawing on the walls, pointing out things.

The last thing anyone will see in the museum is a giant canvas that they can draw pigeons on. [Now] kids can go to the museum, and when they leave they can say, “I have one of my drawings in a museum.” To me that was the most exciting part of the show. To see a blank canvas and come back next day and see pigeons popping up—to see this organic thing grow. Now it’s starting to look like a Pollack.

And your Radio Cartoonist gig at NPR is still going strong?

It has been my favorite oxymoronic occupation to date. In the same way as with naked mole rat—you do it because no one is going to do it. Every cartoonist is trying to get into the New Yorker. Very few are trying to get on the radio. A lot of the time I look for an idea that’s so bad it’s good. It supersedes its badness.

Left: Mo's naked mole rat.
Right: Real naked mole rat.

You have several other books coming out in the next few months, starting with some additions to the Elephant and Piggie series, right?

Yes, there is some more Elephant and Piggie we’re finishing up for next year. We’re also finishing up a pop-out book—my first—and a book drawn by somebody else, which is my first time with another illustrator. And that somebody else is Jon Muth.

And both the pop-out book and the other title are about frogs, right?

They happen to be different types of books. One is about a city dog who goes to the country on the weekend and makes friend with a frog. It is perhaps less silly than most of my books. Therefore you get a good artist as opposed to a doodler like myself. The other is about a frog who literally cannot fit in. It is literally too big for the book—that’s the running gag.

Are there any other animals you’re itching to add to your repertoire?

I guess ’09 is the year of the frog. I think if I can come across another creature as weird as a naked mole rat, I’m sure something will happen.

Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed by Mo Willems. Hyperion, $16.99 ISBN 978-1-4231-1437-6