Mo Willems: Incomprehensible Books for Illiterates

Mo Willems at Williston. Photo by Matthew Cavanaugh

As the audience was settling into the Dodge Room on a cold November night, one mother suddenly turned to another and, pulling a slim book out of her bag, asked, “Which one did you bring?”

“We’ve got Knuffle Bunny and three of the pigeon books,” came the reply.

On Nov. 1, as a full house waited for children’s book author Mo Willems, the excitement was palpable—particularly among his youngest fans, who had brought along their bedtime favorites. When Willems took the podium with an expansive, “Hi, guys! How are you? Let’s get started!” all eyes turned toward him.

Willems, the third author in the 2012 Writers’ Workshop Series, immediately launched into a story. He started to tell the tale of the three little pigs—only there were 10,000 pigs, one house was made of aluminum siding, and the little pigs ended up playing backgammon with the wolf.

He then declared that the story had “no point” because it was easy to imagine. A writer should never provide the answers, Willems said. Instead, they should craft a story that would turn readers into co-authors.

“For me, for a book to work, the story has to be incomprehensible,” Willems said. “That’s my job. I make incomprehensible books for illiterates.”

In a lecture that soon had his audience guffawing, Willems described his first TV show, Sheep in the Big City. The show was unpopular, he said, because it was full of overly clever jokes that reminded the viewers that there was a writer creating a script.

“The audience didn’t trust me. They don’t want me there,” he said. “If I do anything to remind them I’m there, I have failed.”

When he started writing children’s books, Willems said one of the first things he did was throw out the well-worn truism of writing, to write what you know. “That’s terrible advice,” he declared, adding that authors should always write about what they don’t know.

“Writing is lying and the bigger the lies, the better,” Willems said. “The only way to get to an emotional truth is through lying.”

His pigeon character? Really just a rat with wings, Willems said, but all of the fluffy, cuddly creatures, like rabbits and bears, were already taken. But that didn’t mean that he wanted his pigeon to be inaccessible, he said.

“I want all my characters to be able to be drawn by a five-year-old,” he said. “I want my books to engender a form of low-level copyright infringement.”

Once an author had a terrible idea to play with, Willems said the rest was about pairing that idea to a gossamer thin text and subjecting it to all sorts of scrutiny, to make sure the plot, the characters, the story, and the art, would stand the test of time.

“It doesn’t matter whether [the idea] comes quickly or slowly,” he said. “It matters whether it stands the test of the stresses you put on it.”

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