Mo Willems aims to inspire kids to write their stories
When Mo Willems was 5, he was a huge fan of the comic strip "Peanuts," whiling away many an afternoon drawing Snoopy and Charlie Brown. One day he wrote a one-sentence letter to Charles Schulz, the strip's creator. "Dear Mr. Schulz," it read, "can I have your job when you are dead?"
Schulz died in 2000 without explicitly handing the crown to Willems. But in 2003, Willems's first children's book, "Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus," in which the reader gets to refuse an extremely persuasive pigeon's requests to drive, became a huge hit and won the Caldecott Honor, among other awards. Since then, his book "Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale," the Elephant and Piggie Easy Reader series, and many others have established Willems as one of the most popular picture book writers working today.
Willems will be in town Saturday as a highlight of Hubbub: Creative Commotion for Kids, a daylong children's cultural festival in Copley Square. "I'm going to do what I do often,'' he says. "I jump around and make a fool of myself. It should be a little bit rock 'n' roll. What's better than a bunch of kids yelling, 'No'? That is kind of punk rock."
Willems is "an incredibly dynamic and engaging presenter,'' says Norah Piehl, the deputy director of the Boston Book Festival. At an appearance by Willems in 2011, she says, "We had close to 600 kids and parents at his session, and he had them all oinking like pigs." The Book Festival is sponsoring Hubbub for the first time this year, and it plans to make it an annual event. This year's festivities include a concert by Dan Zanes and Friends, as well as book panels, puppets, yoga, and hands-on art activities. One goal is to inspire Boston kids to creativity as they move into summer vacation.
Willems, 47, doesn't jump around simply because he likes the exercise. He aims to spark children's imaginations. His characters are deliberately simple so that kids can draw them too. "The idea of a 5-year-old taking my characters and using them to tell their own stories is appealing to me," he says "I did that with Charlie Brown."
But he also notes that his fans are eager to create stories of their own. "The parents will say, 'My child wants to be a writer,' and I have to remind them that their child is a writer,'' he says. "One of the great things about writing is that it is one of the few things a kid can do for real. You can't be an astronaut for real. You can't be a lawyer for real — well, you can be difficult and obnoxious, but that's not passing the bar exam. I want kids to show their parents that they are writers right now."
Willems, who grew up in New Orleans and earned a fine arts degree from New York University, says he was influenced by cartoonist Saul Steinberg, sculptor Alexander Calder, and the comedy troupe Monty Python, as well as by Schulz. He began his career as a writer and animator for "Sesame Street." He now lives in Northampton with his wife and their daughter, Trixie (the namesake of the heroine in the "Knuffle Bunny" books). Why live in Northampton? "Because I can," Willems says. "It is a magic little town. It is a fun bubble to live in."
The plots of Willems's books are deceptively simple. In one, a pigeon finds a hot dog; in another, a little girl loses her plush bunny. But Willems says his tales always explore the gamut of human emotions. At Hubbub, he plans to read his most recent addition to the Elephant and Piggie series, "I Will Take a Nap!" which was published earlier this month. "Every Elephant and Piggie book asks a philosophical question,'' he says. "What do you do when you and your best friend want to do two different things at the same time? What is the right balance? When do you bend and when are you assertive?"
The new book, he says, is intended as a comedy, not a sermon. "The one thing I don't want to do is write a didactic book. This is not about Little Henny not wanting to nap and then discovering that naps are awesome. I am really on the side of the kids." He says he provides 49 percent of the story and lets the kids fill in the rest.
His Elephant and Piggie books, in particular, are applauded by educators as useful resources for emerging readers. He didn't formally study the pedagogy of reading, but he learned about early childhood education while he was working in television. "I was at 'Sesame Street' for nine seasons, and they did child development seminars that looked at the research and every dull thing about how kids' minds work and how they grab letters,'' he explains. "I got enough of a base coat of that stuff so that now I can ignore it."
Willems left television in 2002, after a career that included creating the show "Sheep in the Big City" for the Cartoon Network (a "colossal failure," he says), to focus on books. The publishing industry allows him more freedom, he says. "Television is very expensive and really risk-averse. You can't experiment. You can't do super crazy stuff. Books are cheap to produce. You can take risks, and you have a lot more freedom to mess around and fail big."
Willems also once dabbled in stand-up comedy, but now he limits his performances to events like Hubbub. "I tend to want to go to bed early, and I don't talk about things that are happening in the culture,'' he says. "I am interested in more philosophical questions, like love and jealousy and wanting to drive the bus." (Like the pigeon, he's never actually driven a bus; he says no one ever handed over the keys.)
Questions of what kids, or their animal stand-ins, can and can't do are a recurring theme of the books — and Willems's sympathy with his characters' frustrations may be part of what makes them so popular. "I think all childhood is difficult,'' he says. "The furniture isn't made to your size. If you are having a hard day, they can pick you up and move you to another room. You have to ask permission to urinate. . . . It's just one indignity after another."
With his books, he is doing something to try to soothe the indignity of it all — and, apparently, spurring a new generation to dream of a future as creators. "Two years ago," he says, "I got a letter. It said, 'Dear Mr. Willems, can I have your job when you are dead?' "
HUBBUB: CREATIVE COMMOTION
FOR KIDS Saturday, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., in Copley Square. Sponsored by the Boston Book Festival. Highlights include: "A Morning With Mo Willems," 10 a.m., Old South Sanctuary; "Welcome Home: Great Books for
Middle-Grade Readers,'' featuring Jeanne Birdsall, Tor Seidler, and
Mitali Perkins, 11:45 a.m., Old South Sanctuary; and Dan Zanes and Friends Dance Party, 2 p.m., Old South Sanc tuary. All events are free except Dan Zanes; tickets are $15 for adults, $10 for children 2 to 12. Some events require free online registration. For the full schedule and tickets, visit www.hubbubfest.org.