'Elephant and Piggie's Mo Willems talks
Cartoonist Mo Willems likes to say he doesn’t write books — he makes them. And children and parents who’ve enjoyed his numerous award-winning stories — Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!, Knuffle Bunny, Elephant and Piggie, Leonardo the Terrible Monster, Cat the Cat — understand the distinction. His simply-drawn but complex characters leap off the page, and their comical adventures have a rhythm that makes reading them a fun group activity. “If you really love your kids,” he jokes, “every time you read a book [of mine] it should be a new copy.” That might just be his secret: His most recent book, Elephant and Piggie’s Happy Pig Day! is currently a New York Times best-seller. The author chatted with EW about his most pliable characters — the sensitive pachyderm and the irrepressible swine — and discussed his first app, Don’t Let the Pigeon Run This App, which becomes available today.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: My wife and I have read all your books to our two children, including your Knuffle Bunny series, and I’ll just throw it out there, we’re a nuffle family, not a k-nuffle family.
MO WILLEMS: It’s all fine. I don’t really care much. The knuffle/nuffle thing became so brother against brother and it split up families. So if you’ve figured out a way to make that work, I’m all good.
A knuffle kerfuffle.
Right, when people ask me how to pronounce it, I often say, “It depends on how you pronounce it.”
You did so many fascinating things even before becoming a children’s author, from standup comedy to Sesame Street to animated cartoons to NPR and global travel. Did you always know you were good at this?
I don’t think you ever know what you’re good at. It’s reductive. You get to know more and more what you’re bad at. Whatever’s left over becomes your thing. You know, my dream was to be a sketch comedian, and I started a sketch comedy group in college and it broke off into other groups and the break-off splinter group became The State. And God, I hated them for that. And then I got in to Sesame Street and I was happy not because I wanted to write for children but because it was a sketch comedy show with puppets. And at Sesame I learned that I liked writing for children. But I still feel like Elephant and Piggie is a version of sketch comedy.
I’ve heard your answer about what comes first, the images or the story, but what comes easier?
It’s literally simultaneous. I make a doodle and I put some words next to it, and that sparks another doodle which sparks a new word. It’s an organic sort of process and it takes time. Often people say, “Where do you get your ideas?” as if they’re animals that you can hunt down and kill. You stalk them.
Tell me where you get them!
Right, they want to go to my hunting ground. My glib answer used to be I get them in Belize because everything has to be belizable. But the fact is it’s like growing a garden. You just plant these little ideas and you wait for them to grow and some of them are vines and some of them don’t work. But if you plant 10 ideas, one of them will grow up and bear fruit — and then you can cut it down and burn it and use it for profit.
Forgive me for quoting you back to you, but something you said really made me think about your work in a different way. You said, “People think, ‘Hey, I love kids, I want to write children’s books.’ But they think children are happy. That’s their first mistake.” So what was your childhood like?
It’s a fair question. My childhood, by the definition it was a childhood, was frustrating: the furniture wasn’t to my scale, and I had to ask permission to urinate, and all those indignities everybody goes through. In addition, I had a fairly lonely childhood. I didn’t have a tragic childhood, but I was unhappy. And it was not an easy time for me in particular for various reasons, and so one of the reasons that I fell in love with Charlie Brown and Peanuts was that Charlie Brown had it worse than me. He was the only character in pop culture that wasn’t smiling and happy. You know, Mickey Mouse was on lithium. Even Bugs Bunny was pretty happy most of the time. I felt like I was doing something wrong, and there came Charlie Brown and I felt a kindred soul.
Was it specifically Charlie Brown of those Peanuts characters that you identified with or were you a Linus person?
In a child’s egocentric way, I would say I’m like Linus: I’m real smart and in control. You pretend not to be like Charlie Brown, although secretly you knew you were. And you wished that people thought you were Snoopy.
Well, one could draw a pretty direct line from those classic characters to Elephant and Piggie. Tell me a little bit about how those characters came about for you.
Elephant and Piggie are the first characters that I created that I intended for multiple books. I really developed them almost in the way that you would develop television. I knew that they were going to have to carry a lot of weight. When you create a single book, often you just have to develop them enough so they can survive whatever indignities you’re going to put them through. But here, I knew there were things that I hadn’t imagined that they were still going to have to handle. Elephant was the first character and I was drawing and doodling proto-versions of him for like two or three years. Never quite sure why or how I would use it. And then when I came to the idea of early readers, it struck me as very funny because there are sort of two [theories] of how you teach kids to read. The whole word, that is to say the kid hears the word elephant, they write “LFant,” and that’s acceptable because at least they’re learning the grammar. And then there’s this other argument that says, “No, you just have to do it by rote memorization.” And elephant is always the word that is used by both sides of this argument. So I thought it was really funny that you kind of have the hardest word to spell and the most controversial word in spelling as the star of a series. It felt right. And I think that Elephant’s kind of closer to me: you know, the glass is half full of poison kind of guy. And Piggie, there’s a bit of my daughter, there’s a bit of my wife there. Like anything, I don’t think anybody aspires to be either Elephant or Piggie; you aspire to be them at their best when they work together.
Explain to me why the Elephant got a name, Gerald, and Piggie did not.
Well Elephant is Elephant Gerald. He’s named after my favorite singer. And Piggie, her name is Piggie.
Her name is Piggie… So there’s never going to be a book where we learn her name, like some Cosmo Kramer reveal?
I thought about that a little. Way back, early, early, I thought of calling her Beopiggie. But that just seemed too obscure a reference. It was a one-note joke. Elephant Gerald works on a lot of levels: one, because it’s hard to spell elephant, and two, because I really do love Ella Fitzgerald. I don’t really love the Bay of Pigs. It’s not on my top 10 list of anything.
It is one of the best fiascos of all time.
I know, I know, but in Samarkand in 1215 there was a much bigger fiasco! But the more I thought about Piggie, she is so essentially who she is, she can’t be given a name. A name only complicates her. Elephant is complex in a way. He wears glasses, he has a name, he’s hiding behind stuff because he’s unsure. But Piggie has nothing to hide, so her having a name would dilute that essential Piggieness of her. She’s purely who she is. So it just seems that that’s the way to do it.
I think one of the reasons Elephant and Piggie resonates so strongly with early readers is the theme of friendship because kids that age are just beginning to make real friends, and today’s best friend is tomorrow’s meanie, and everything’s okay again by Wednesday.
It’s about the failed friendship, absolutely. One of my inspirations was in Go, Dog, Go, which is my favorite book but it has a huge flaw. I mean, all my books have flaws too, but the flaw in Go, Dog, Go is there is no emotional life. When the Poodle says, “Do you like my hat?” the Hound says, “No.” The Poodle comes back, “Do you like my hat?” Hound says, “No.” Poodle comes back, “Do you like my hat?” The Hound says no. Even as a 7-year-old, I remember saying, “If I were the Poodle, I’d say, ‘Well, screw you! I’ve worn three hats! Do you know how expensive they are? Do you know how much time I spent on them? You know, these hats don’t just grow on trees! You can’t just blow me off and walk away.'” And to me, that’s what the Elephant and Piggie books are. It’s, “Do you like my hat?” “No.” “Screw you.” They’re friends and they damage their friendship in some way, and then they have to find a way to undamage it.
Do your peers ever ask when you’re going to write something for grownups?
No, not at all. My peers have kids. They love it. And a lot of my peers would love to be doing stuff that their kids can see. One of the great things about doing what I do is that most everything I make I can share with my daughter. It’s glorious.
She’s how old now?
Now she’s 10.
Is that too old for the new Pigeon app to be fun?
She’s kind of excited, but she’s at the age where it’s really fun to subvert it. When you record your own thing — “Don’t let the pidgeon… POOP.” “Hi, can I… POOP.” “By Mo Willems and … POOP.” Which is pretty awesome. She’s looking for a way to break the machine.
So which of your characters can we expect to hear from next?
Well, the Pigeon just got so PO’d that I hadn’t made a book about him in five years, so there is a new Pigeon book out in the spring. When I realized it’s time to make another Pigeon book, I figured the best way to do it is to make sure it’s not about him. So it’s about the Duckling — just to make him even angrier. It’s called The Duckling Gets a Cookie?! with a question mark and an exclamation point. And it’s all about the injustice of the Duckling asking for a cookie and getting it, and the Pigeon being left out in the cold. And next fall, there will be a new book with brand new characters. I can’t talk about that yet.
You’ve been compared to Charles Schulz, Dr. Seuss, and Walt Disney, but what’s your ultimate goal — I mean, beyond the Mo Town Resort and Casino in Orlando?
[Laughs.] That’s the antithesis of my goal. My hope is that my books and my apps and other platforms of entertainment engender a desire by a large number of kids to write and draw on their own. The day that they discover that they’re not going to be an artist for real in their lives is probably the day they discover they’re not going to be basketball players for real. Yet the kids keep playing basketball, but they stop drawing. So if I can create work that sparks kids to create their own stuff, and they don’t stop in third grade, and they keep doing it, that would be a phenomenal achievement. That is what I would most aspire to.