Children’s author Mo Willems visits Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe this month to read from his newest book, Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs. The best-selling author of Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus and the Piggie & Elephant series talks about doodling at dinner, high school censorship, and why parents should remember just how cool they really are.
What were some of your first experiences with children’s books?
Coming from a family of Dutch immigrants, I didn’t have many American picture books as a kid. My strongest memories are those wonderful Peanuts collections that I picked up at the local K&B drugstore and lunch counter for 75 cents. I also dug Spiderman in the mid and late ’70s. It was like reading about Charlie Brown with superpowers. And Sneetches on Beaches was a great favorite.
You grew up in New Orleans, a quirky town full of characters that inspired you. How did they influence you?
New Orleans is a town where people get together and tell stories of colossally stupid deeds.
When they run out of tales to tell, they go out and do more crazy stuff. What a fun world to grow up in. You are constantly telling stories to an audience of eager listeners. That’s about as good practice as one can get.
Was it a good thing to be the kid in the classroom who had such a desire to draw and create?
My cartoons were generally seen as a positive by my classmates and a good number of my teachers. In high school, however, I was censored for putting the word “fart” in one of my cartoon strips. It was a big, loud stink, but it blew over in time.
What pearls of wisdom do you have for nurturing a child’s creativity?
I have no pearls, only oysters. Sometimes parents forget how cool they are. If you read, your kids will think reading is cool. If you draw, your kids will draw. You’ll not only set a great example, you’ll have fun. Our family pulls out a giant sheet of paper every night to use as our tablecloth and we spend the entire dinner doodling together. It’s fun, cathartic, interesting and FUN. So often, kids learn very early that they “aren’t creative” or that they “can’t draw.” Why?
There is no such thing as a wrong drawing. Unfortunately, kids see all the adults around them not doodling or drawing and decide it’s for babies. This is a loss for both the kid and the grown-up.
Why do you suppose you are drawn to make books for children in particular?
I write books for people who have yet to learn to be embarrassed. It just happens that most of those people are very young. There is a great deal of freedom in creating picture books. Size, shape, style and content can vary so widely. I think there are so many great picture books out there because so many people are willing to show the world who they are through drawings. It’s pretty cool.
You were a writer and animator for “Sesame Street” and won six Emmy awards. What did you learn there that you didn’t expect to learn?
The muppets aren’t real! There are guys and gals down there working them like they’re some kind of, oh, I don’t know, puppets! “Sesame Street” was my graduate school. It’s where I learned writing, timing, comedy and a myriad of other little tricks I still use today.
What were some of your favorite books to read to your daughter, Trixie, when she was small?
Around first or second grade, Trixie and I started reading comic books, like Calvin and Hobbes and Peanuts. We’d play different characters, do different dialogues. Right now she’s interested in fantasy and magic. She likes the Rick Riordan books, and she’s deep into Guardians of Ga’Hoole. She also likes manga and reads magazines, like New Moon Girls and National Geographic.
Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs comes out this fall. Why revisit a classic instead of making up an original story?
I would deliberately read the words wrong to Trixie and she would correct me. If we were reading Go, Dog, Go! for example, I would say, ‘Go, Monkey, Go’ and she would say, ‘No, Daddy, it’s a dog!’ Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs was inspired by that sort of playfulness. It’s a spoof: They’re not bears, they’re dinosaurs this time. Hopefully this will encourage kids to go out and make their own stories.
Did Trixie, or your wife Cher, give you any ideas about how to draw or write Goldilocks?
While I am consistently inspired by my daughter, she does not make me a better writer or illustrator. She simply grounds my work in an awareness of my audience. My wife, on the other hand, is an insightful critic and “everyman.” I find her instincts are invariably correct, even if I stubbornly refuse to listen to her advice. In terms of additional motivation, I find my mortgage to be a powerful incentive for continued creative output.
Meet Mo Willems
6pm Wednesday, Sept. 12
Changing Hands Bookstore
6428 S McClintock Dr, Tempe
480-730-0205 • changinghands.com