Pop Culture of My Life: Mo Willems on Peanuts, Turning Red, and the stories that inspire him
His new picture book may be titled The Pigeon Will Ride the Roller Coaster! (out today), but Mo Willems admits he's not a fan of the amusement park ride.
"I'm not a rollercoaster person by nature but the last couple years have been a rollercoaster of learning to adapt," the beloved children's book author told EW over Zoom in mid-July. And he found the ride was the perfect metaphor for the idea of planning and anticipating a big event that might not always meet expectations, as Pigeon does in his latest book.
Creator of popular tales featuring Elephant & Piggie, Knuffle Bunny, and that pesky Pigeon, Willems got his start working on Sesame Street — eventually winning multiple Emmys as a writer and animator on the show — before transitioning to children's books with 2003's classic Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! Many best-sellers and prestigious awards followed, along with a return to TV with a two HBO Max specials: 2020's Mo Willems: Don't Let the Pigeon Do Storytime! and this summer's Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed: The Underground Rock Experience.
When asked about his creative process, Willems waves a black notebook. "It's filled with doodles and story breakdowns and characters. And I write down all of the various book ideas that are in there and then I go back and I play with them and I let them grow. There definitely have been times in my career where I was scared of the blank page but at this stage, I'm more worried about running out of time than running out of ideas."
My favorite book as a child
Any Peanuts volume, any compilation of the Peanuts. And also a lot of books illustrated by a woman named Fiep Westendorp, who is a Dutch illustrator. Fiep was amazing and was the great illustrator of the 20th century. Those were my big childhood go-tos.
The book I've read over and over again
I have a book called The Cartoon Treasury of cartoons from the 1950s that I've probably read realistically four or five thousand times. I tend to reread the George and Martha books by James Marshall.
The last book that made me laugh
I'm right now reading — it's not a new book, but it's new to me — the Michael Palin diaries. He kept all the diaries during the Python years. And they're just so charming and they reminded me of the Alec Guinness diaries, which also were just so fun and so charming. I'm enjoying seeing bits of history as they're happening from the perspective of just a really funny person.
A book I consider grossly overrated
I feel that anybody who goes to the effort to write a book that expresses a part of who they are deserves respect and anybody who doesn't do that already knows if they are. They don't need me to tell 'em they're not doing good work.
A classic that I'm embarrassed to say I've never read
I think embarrassment is a learned disease. I have had a shamectomy. I don't feel anyone should be embarrassed for what they haven't read. I think a book that I haven't gotten to yet, that I would like to read is that I have only read James Baldwin's essays and interviews and articles. And I have not read any of his fiction because I don't read much fiction and I love reading his nonfiction. I go to his essays quite a bit but I would say something that I've been meaning to get to is the fiction.
My favorite fictional hero
I wished that I had the wisdom and the perseverance of Linus. I always aspired to Linusness.
My last TV binge
I did like A Black Lady Sketch Show. I do watch that and I've enjoyed Abbott Elementary as well. There has been some really good animation lately. Turning Red and then The Mitchells vs. The Machines I feel like there've been some really good CG films lately after maybe a period where I wasn't as attracted to what was happening. Those were two very good pieces. I really enjoyed them.
The song that always makes me feel better
The Girl from Ipanema.
The music I listen to while I create
I tend to listen to instrumental music or music in a language that I do not know while I draw. I love Orchestra Baobab. I've been listening to a lot of Al Green, but I don't listen to Al Green when I'm drawing because I can understand the words. I also listen to a lot of classical. I listen to a lot of piano jazz. I mean I used to be much more of a snob about my music. Now I'm much more open.
The literary place where I'd like to live
I don't know that it's fictional, but maybe it is literary. I would love to live in Michel de Montaigne's winery chateau while he was there. That would be pretty great.
What I'm reading now
I'm reading Michael Palin diaries, and really enjoying them. And I'm reading a lot of Carlo Rovelli, the physicist. I find his stuff just wonderful. So, so interesting. And he writes in such a charming way.
The book I wish I'd written
There are so many books that I admire, but I could never, I would never aspire to write something that wasn't mine. I mean, are there books that have changed my life? Sure, sure. I mean, in my twenties I loved Iris Murdoch but I don't think I've ever wanted to write an Iris Murdoch book. I don't think jealousy is the healthiest place for me to mix with admiration. If I really love something, I wanna admire it. I don't wanna own it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity