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Mo Willems

#1 New York Times Bestselling author and illustrator Mo Willems is best known for his Caldecott Honor winning picture books Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!, Knuffle Bunny: a cautionary tale, and Knuffle Bunny Too: a case of mistaken identity.

In addition to such picture books as Leonardo the Terrible Monster, Edwina the Dinosaur Who Didn’t Know She Was Extinct, and Time to Pee!, Mo created the Theodor Seuss Geisel Medal winning Elephant and Piggie books, a series of early readers, and published You Can Never Find a Rickshaw When it Monsoons, an annotated cartoon journal sketched during a year-long voyage around the world in 1990-91.

The New York Times Book Review called Mo “the biggest new talent to emerge thus far in the 00's."

Mo’s work books have been translated into a myriad of languages, spawned Carnegie Medal winning animated shorts, and theatrical musical productions. His illustrations, wire sculpture, and carved ceramics have been exhibited in galleries and museums across the nation.

Mo began his career as a writer and animator for television, garnering six Emmy Awards for his writing on Sesame Street, creating Nickelodeon's The Off-Beats, Cartoon Network’s Sheep in the Big City and head-writing Codename: Kids Next Door.

He lives in Massachusetts with his family.


Mo visits with the NCCIL.

1. What response do you hope to get from visitors at this exhibition?

Dude. You’ve stumped me on the very first question.

It’s impolite to expect things from people you haven’t met, but I suppose a smile and a desire to draw at home would be nice.

2. When in your life did you realize you wanted to be an artist?

Oh, I’m no artist, and I don’t want to be one. I’m a utilitarian craftsman. My job is to construct solidly, well-built stories and drawings to be used and re-used by kids and grown-ups.

An artist is concerned with making his audience understand him, a craftsman is concerned with understanding his audience.

I suppose that I’ve wanted to write and draw funny stuff from a very young age (say 4 or so), just after I learned that a gas station attendant wasn’t a viable career.

3. What type of preparation goes into creating your artwork?

Every book is different, but I usually start off with something that makes me laugh (an idea or character or situation or doodle or expression). Anything Funny is also True, therefore worth pursuing.

After a bit of poking the idea, I begin exploring the main characters in an effort to get to know them. This is important because it’s the characters who actually create the story. I doodle them in various situations and locations, write snippets of dialog, etc. This process can take anywhere from a few months to a few years.

As the doodles pile up and I begin discover what makes them tick, the characters assert themselves allowing the story to evolve rapidly. At this point (or so I hope) the Controlling Idea comes into focus. I’m serious about not exposing what I think the book is about (it’s not my place to do so, my readers/listeners bring their experiences to the story and decide its meaning), but keeping the Controlling Idea in mind gives me good guide to help me structure the story. From there I start to cobble together a dummy to show my editor.

Now I can get down to business and figure out what the final illustrations will look like (Pen, pencil, paint? Rendered or flat? Will I use backgrounds or colors? What size and shape should the pages be? etc…). This is where I play with different paper types, pencil types, brush types, typography, etc… to try and find the style that will best communicate the character’s lives.

The only rule I set for myself before starting is that the star of each book should be designed in such a way that anyone can draw him or her. So, I spend my time trying to make my drawings simpler and simpler as I go along.

Now, this may sound like quite a bit of stuff to do for each project, but the point of making books is not to do less work, just to make it look like you are.

4. Which one of your books has been your greatest challenge in writing and illustrating?

Technically, the Knuffle Bunny books require quite a bit of planning. The photo shoots sometimes need to be set up weeks in advance and require special permission and/or equipment. Then there’s all that doctoring of the photos (taking out air-conditionings and stuff), melding of cartoon to picture, and reworking of the actual drawings to do.

Honestly, tho’ –each new book presents enough new problems and challenges to keep me on my toes.

5. What fascinated you about art as a child?

I like pretty pictures. Colors are cool. I’ve always enjoyed galleries and museums. They’re like spaceships filled with ideas made physical. If I saw something I didn’t understand at first, like an abstraction, it was fun to look at it and try to figure it out.

Realistic representational stuff never grabbed me, even as a kid. There’s so much real life stuff out there, why make more of it?

6. How does your strong background in film influence your artwork?

Animators learn never to fall in love with their drawings (if a drawing doesn’t serve the scene, it has to go—no matter how pretty it is) and to always create strong silhouettes (so you know how a character feels just from its body).

TV is essentially disposable, so people don’t take it seriously. This is great for someone starting out, because it means that he can experiment and learn how to tell stories in relative anonymity. Once you make a book, your name is all over that thing…

7. Have there been significant influences in your artwork, personal experiences or works of art that you have admired?

As a kid I really dug Charles Schulz and Dutch illustrator Fiep Westendorp. I’d spend hours reading and re-reading and re-re-reading and re-re-re-re-reading their stuff. They were the pillars that supported my future admiration of cartoonists like Ronald Searle, Saul Steinberg, and Anatol Kovarsky and fine artists like Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee, Joan Miro, and most especially Alexander Calder.

A list of influential folks will inevitably become too long as I’m constantly discovering (and being inspired by) awesome illustrators, cartoonists, and artists. Ultimately, anyone who can dance on the tightrope between personal vision and respecting their audience has my greatest respect.

Oh, and funny people make me laugh.

8. What, in your opinion, is the power of art?

I have no idea. I just know that it’s powerless without an audience.

9. What are the five words you would use to describe your work?

Stuff. I. Hope. You. Enjoy.

By Sujata Shahane, September 2008.

Mo Willems
Image © Gordon Trice

Knuffle Funny: The Art and Whimsy of Mo Willems

Exhibition Retired