In his 37 years, Mo Willems has been a stand-up comedian, an artist, a global traveler, an animator for television, a filmmaker and a writer of patter for Cookie Monster and Grover.
It's all been a warmup for Willems's latest incarnation as a children's book writer and illustrator, and his newest career has paid off handsomely in the past year. Although he's published only four picture books, two have garnered Caldecott Honor awards. In 2003, Willems won for Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus (Hyperion), which featured a determined bird who tries to convince young readers to let him take the wheel. And last month, Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale (Hyperion, 2004) was recognized by the Caldecott committee for its fresh illustrative technique: Willems superimposed cartoon characters (based on his own family) atop black-and-white photography of Brooklyn's Park Slope neighborhood. The story, of a toddler's beloved stuffed animal gone missing during a routine trip to the Laundromat, is both witty and insightful.
Willems downplays his accolades, insisting that winning awards is far from his mind when he works. "Consciously, all I want to do is make sure that all my books are funny. Kids can't fake laughter. So the only way I can judge if what I'm doing is real or true or right is if I can get a laugh," says the tall, garrulous Willems as he perches on a stool in the Park Slope apartment he shares with his wife and young daughter. Artifacts from his past lives abound: a cluster of Emmy Awards, won for his writing on Sesame Street, gleams in a corner of the spacious living room; Calderesque wire sculptures (early artistic efforts) and framed cels from his animation work decorate his sunny studio.
Getting kids to laugh is a skill Willems has mastered. In addition to clever wordplay and resonant subject matter—the lost Knuffle, the fear of nature's call in Time to Pee (Hyperion, 2003)—his books share a visual simplicity that prompts giggles. "It's important to me that most of the drawings I make can be reasonably copied by a four-year-old," he says. "A lot of my design process involves taking things away until I get the simplest, rawest drawings."
Willems learned about simplicity of design from his earliest inspirations: the humorous, clean-lined drawings of Dutch illustrator Fiep Westendorp, and Charles M. Schulz's Peanuts comics. "They had so much depth and honesty," he says, pointing to the sizable collection of Peanuts books on his bookshelves. Willems, the son of Dutch immigrants, grew up in New Orleans. He spent part of his unconventional childhood hanging around neighborhood blues bars, making sketches and telling funny stories, which led to a stint in stand-up comedy. After attending NYU, he tried film school, but quickly turned to animation because, he says, "You didn't have to worry about the weather and you didn't need a cast of thousands. You just drew a lot of characters."
In 1993, producers at Sesame Street, impressed by his comedy work and animated shorts, hired Willems in an unusual double role: as a writer and an animator. During the next nine years, he produced both scripts and short films for the show, before leaving to create the animated series Sheep in the Big City for the Cartoon Network.
Writing for children's television not only established Willems's career, it also helped shape how he wanted to communicate to kids. By the time he left Sesame Street in 2002, Willems no longer agreed with the show's approach to entertaining children. He notes, "I find that in a lot of popular kids' culture there's a tendency to say things like 'everyone can be number one,' which is a statistical impossibility. That happiness is the only valid emotion, and anybody who isn't happy is somehow bad. I think all these things are untrue, and kids see that they're untrue. The difference between children and adults is that they're shorter—not dumber."
Yet Willems did not go into children's book publishing with an agenda. "I just wanted to be true, to entertain," he says. "At most, I wouldn't mind helping kids think about the world around them."
It took Willems five years to break into publishing. While pitching various ideas to his agent, Marcia Wernick at the Sheldon Fogelman Agency, a Pigeon sketchbook fell out of his portfolio. The sketchbook became a picture book, and an avian star was born when Alessandra Balzer at Hyperion picked up the manuscript in 2001.
Besides Pigeon, Willems is currently juggling eight publishing projects in different stages, his preferred work method. He writes a manuscript, then comes up with a storyboard or a mock-up book with dozens of drawings. Then, with Balzer and Hyperion art director Ann Diebel, he shuffles images, edits and cuts. "It's always alive, it's never finished," says Willems about how he creates a book. "You throw things away until it works, until it finds its voice."
Among his forthcoming projects are several more picture books for Hyperion. Other projects will test Willems's range, including Every Man for Himself (Dial, Aug.), a book of short stories for teenage boys, and a graphic memoir he is writing now of the yearlong round-the-world trip he took after high school, which Balzer will publish at Hyperion.
But he returns to a familiar theme in his fall 2005 release, a picture book for Hyperion called Leonardo, the Terrible Monster, starring a little monster who is really bad at scaring people. Like Pigeon, who loses his bid to drive the bus, and Knuffle Bunny's toddler, who can't communicate that she's lost her bunny, Leonardo deals with failure and frustration. This theme, Willems says, flows throughout his work, even if it's unconscious. "Failure is pervasive in children's lives, but I don't know when it stopped being funny," he says. "It needs to be explored and enjoyed and laughed at and understood." Willems's books tell kids it's okay to fall short—and makes them smile at the same time.