Strapping in for a self-proclaimed emotional roller coaster ride, author-illustrator Mo Willems sat down with Union Square Kids editorial director Tracey Keevan to discuss his epic 20-year-plus journey in children’s books and the release of his eighth Pigeon book, The Pigeon Will Ride the Roller Coaster! (September). Their conversation took place on Thursday, May 26 from 12-12:30 p.m. ET during the U.S. Book Show, presented by Publishers Weekly.
By way of highlighting Willems’s achievements, Keevan chronicled a running list of “Mo by the Numbers”: 65+ books, 40 New York Times bestsellers, 26 foreign-language editions, seven musical adaptations, six Emmy Awards, two Theodor Seuss Geisel Awards, five Geisel Honors, four licensed theater productions, three animated series, two HBO Max specials… and, of course, one fabled pigeon.
The title character has grown since its first appearance and has been greatly influenced by the last two years of pandemic living. “The pigeon is no longer the bundle of fury it was 20 years ago,” Willems said. “[This new] book is about making plans and adapting to reality. I want to be able to express the joys and the apprehension, excitement, surprise, and resignation that come with planning.”
Creating a Spark
Even as a kid, Willems knew that he wanted to combine art with storytelling, fulfilling lifelong pursuits of drawing and comedy. “In everything I do, I want to be a spark,” he said. While crafting his stories, Willems takes certain factors into consideration, including the size of the book and how it relates to the content. Willems’s Pigeon books are designed with a square cover, to hint at something unusual. “We are hoping to set a stage of expectation and participation,” he said of the forthcoming title.
When creating art and entertainment, Willems revealed the importance of establishing a common thread. “My credo is to always think of your audience and never think for your audience,” he said. In fact, he admitted that he learns from the kids themselves—a quality, Keevan pointed out, that demonstrates the faith Willems puts in his readers. “You trust kids to come along for the ride,” she said.
After likening the creative process of storytelling to a roller coaster ride with its ups and downs, Keevan asked Willems about what sustains him as a writer. He recalled the initial anxiety he faced when drafting his first play (Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Musical in 2010), and shared how that combination of fear and excitement served as motivation. But now as a seasoned writer, Willems appreciates a more collaborative effort. “I am constantly looking for rooms where I can work with actors, and writers who can bring so much to the table,” he said. “I want to learn from them.”
For Willems, cultivating a wealth of talent is not self-serving, but beneficial for the endurance of the children’s book community. When Keevan asked how books can push boundaries further, he stressed the importance of incorporating a variety of voices in new releases—something that he said has waned in recent years. “Sometimes, I fear that in the search for hits, we are losing out on the weirdness and the eccentric stuff,” he said. “I hope that the unusual stops being pejorative and becomes a compliment.”
In the meantime, Willems is finding new ways to refresh his own creative juices. During the pandemic, he began painting more abstractions out of a desire to see things that were continuous. “Color, form, and shape are always there—all that matters is that we have control over them,” he said. And noting the surge of people who also picked up a paint brush or sketchpad over the last two years, Willems stressed the empathy that comes from drawing and creating.
As a nod to the resurgence in creativity fueled by Covid, Willems pointed to his father-in-law who, when invited to doodle on a butcher’s block-papered dinner table, eventually added color to the designs he had made. “There’s no such thing as a wrong drawing; it shows kids you are imperfect,” Willems said.