SNL favorite and mom of two Molly Shannon is bringing her zany, good-natured comic sensibility to her new children’s book, Tilly the Trickster (Abrams), which will be published in September 2011. Tilly is a “strong little spicy character,” in Shannon’s words, and an “imperfectly perfect role model.” We caught up with Shannon to find out how her childhood (filled with mischief and hijinks) and being a parent to her own children inspired her to write this book.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: In your own words, what is the book all about?
MOLLY SHANNON: Basically, as the title says, it’s about a little girl named Tilly who plays tricks on family and friends. It’s based on my own kids, Stella and Nolan, who are 7 and 5. I encourage them to play harmless little tricks on their friends and also on me. I got that from my dad. He was always so silly and playful, getting us to play games, put on wigs, and do silly things — I wanted to pass that sense of fun onto them.
What made you want to write a children’s book?
I’ve always been interested in writing a children’s book, but I didn’t want to do it until I had kids. After reading so many books out loud to Stella and Nolan, I started to feel comfortable with those types of stories, and I thought it was something I could do myself. I noticed that my kids really responded to the stories I’d make up, even more than the ones I’d read to them. I told them a bunch of stories about the Mahoneys, a family in my neighborhood growing up that had ten kids. They loved the parts where the kids would get in trouble or play tricks, and that’s where the idea came from.
I’ve heard a lot of authors who’ve written books both for adults and for children say that writing for children is harder. What was the most difficult part about writing Tilly?
You have to simplify — you don’t want the story to get too crowded. When I was telling Mahoneys stories to my kids orally, it was different. I could focus on the different kids, and it would make sense to them, but when I was writing, I decided to focus on the littlest Mahoneys, a boy and girl. I originally wanted to write about a huge family with all the kids in bunk beds—that was the dream, but it just didn’t work. It was just a learning process, trial and error, and it took a lot of drafts to make the story fit. Children’s books seem simple when you’re reading them, but when you’re actually writing one, it’s not so simple.
What’s your philosophy on what makes kids laugh? How is it different from the humor we’re used to from you on SNL?
It’s different because it’s simple, and I didn’t want the humor to go over kids’ heads, like the humor in animated movies that are definitely intended for the parents. I was in a hotel with my kids once, and I pretended that there was something really spicy in my mouth, so I screamed—[screams]—and ran down the hall, screaming and screaming. They just thought it was the funniest thing ever. Some of the humor in Tilly is really action-oriented, with lots of movement. My son especially responds to that stuff.
What were some of your favorite books growing up?
I don’t know if I remember too many books from when I was a little, little kid, but I loved Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret, and I just loved The Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder.
What are some of your favorite books now?
I love reading — I read all the time! Right now I’m reading Cheerful Money by Tad Friend. I just bought Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, which I can’t wait to read. I also read the mom stuff, like Siblings without Rivalry, lots of parenting books.
So what do you think about Amy Chua and the whole uproar about the Tiger Mother?
I have absolutely no interest in that. I read some of the articles about it and actually enjoyed reading the comments. [Laughs]. She’s obviously a very smart woman, and it seems like she got a lot of attention, which is what she wanted. Her take was so sensationalized, and I didn’t want to participate in that. No interest. None.
What’s the message behind Tilly the Trickster?
To embrace the silliness and fun of life. For my kids in school, it’s all “be quiet, listen, criss-cross applesauce,” and I get that. But sometimes I want kids to just let ‘er rip! My dad was the total opposite of a lot of parents. Once, when I was a kid, we went into a candy store together, pretending to be blind, and we said, “What kind of candy is this? Can we have some?” I think it’s so great for creativity when kids play little tricks on each other or on someone else, as long as it’s nothing harmful or dangerous, just to surprise people and see how they react.
I remember once when I was very young — my mom had just died, and I was in a dark, dark place — me and the other kids were waiting for the school bus. I guess I needed some relief, so I played a little trick. I told the other kids that the bus had already come, and that they’d missed it. So they started walking to school, and when the bus actually came, I had the whole bus to myself, and I waved to the other kids when I passed them. I remember being amazed by the whole thing — I couldn’t believe I could just tell the other kids that and that they’d believe me. It was so funny. And now a version of that story is in the book!
Of course, Tilly’s story is a lot lighter — her parents are both alive — but I love tricks, and I think it’s so, so important for kids to be wild and free, and SILLY! As a comic, I love mischievousness in characters that I play, and as a parent, I think it’s an important skill, different from being cerebral. It’s about letting go and being child-like.