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Transcript from an interview with Mo Willems

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Mo Willems. The transcript is divided into the following sections:

Mo Willems

Peanuts

I've drawn ever since I was a little child, and I lived a lot of my life through making cartoons and telling my own stories. I started out with a love of "Peanuts." I drew Charlie Browns and Snoopys. Then as I got older, I started drawing my own characters. I even wrote a letter to Charles Schulz when I was a young man, saying that I wanted his job when he died.

"Peanuts" was really a transformative comic strip for me, because it was the only comic strip where the main character is unhappy. There's something very realistic about that, and I don't think childhood is necessarily a very happy time, because there's a lot of learning, a lot of stresses and what not; and so it was realistic, but it was very funny, and the drawings were just beautiful and simple. So, I read "Peanuts" left and right and dog-eared my copies.

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Bad jokes

After I finished high school, I moved to London and was very serious about doing standup. I think the good thing is that it allowed me to learn what an audience expects. It gave me a sense of timing, and it also got all the bad jokes out of me. I wrote a lot of stuff and performed it and saw that it didn't work, and that was very helpful — particularly starting out as a writer.

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Sunny Days

I went to film school and made a couple of animated films that were in tournees and in festivals, and so I started out as an independent filmmaker. I would make one film, it would show in a festival, and another company would pay me to make another film. Over time, I was asked by Sesame Street to submit some of my films. At the same time, I became an auditioning writer. One of the great things about having done standup was that at Sesame Street they didn't want somebody who wrote for children; they wanted someone who was funny. They figured they could teach you how to write for children; they couldn't teach you how to be funny. So, they asked me to hand in two adult sketches, and I had them. They were in my filing cabinet, and they were the two funniest things that I had written. It was much easier to become a writer. And once I was accepted, which took about a year, it was like going to school with these older writers who had a lot of experience. At the same time, I was able to make animated films, and every year I was basically given a certain number of films to do that they really wanted. I could take one film and experiment. I could do a different format, a different type of movie, and they were very open to that. It was a great way to be a young man.

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Boring, but tedious

I often say, "If you want to become rich and famous, you should really go into crime," because if you rob somebody, you'll have a lot of money. And then when you're caught, you'll probably get in the newspaper, maybe even with two pictures — you know, one from the side and one from the front.

If you want to tell stories, then get into animation, or books, or something like that. It is too much work to do for the fame. An average cartoon show has 22,000 drawings on the screen with 15,000 preparatory drawings. It takes 16 months of work. You're involved with hundreds and hundreds of people. It's an insane amount of work. It's not something for the faint of heart.

Now, nobody knows that - and they shouldn't, because if you saw how much work went into a cartoon, you would be too depressed to watch it. You want those characters to be alive and to make it seem like it happens magically. I have an expression. I like to say, "It's boring, but it's tedious."

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A demanding doodle

I'd been doing television for a while, and I wanted a new challenge. I love the physicality of books. I love the fact that you can change the aspect ratio. You can make a book square. You can make it very rectangular. You can make it very tall. You have things like the page turn that really affects the timing of these books. But at the same time, you don't have the control that you do, which I like. I like the idea that each book can be read differently and have a different meaning, and it's much more of an open thing.

So, I was determined to do books, and I took some time off. I moved to Oxford for about a month, on the assumption that if I was in Oxford, I'd somehow be smarter. I worked on what I thought were the great American children's books, and they stank. They were just terrible. But as I was doing that, I was making these little doodles, and this character started bugging me — the pigeon, it turned out to be. He demanded more and more of my day. After I worked and tried to do something good, I'd just spend the day doodling this pigeon. Finally, I put him in a sketchbook. Every year I'd put out a very small sketchbook that I would send to family, friends, and clients. That was pretty much it.

I thought that it was over, and I got an agent maybe three or four years later. She said, "Yeah, you know, you're right. Your books do stink." Then I gave her, just sort of as a giveaway, the pigeon sketchbook. And she said, "But I think there's a book in that. I think that that's a book."

So, I was very lucky. I didn't see it, necessarily, as a children's book. I just saw it as a funny pigeon.

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More than meets the eye

When I was doing my cartoon show "Sheep in the Big City," one of the critiques that a kid wrote to me was, "It looks like you're trying too hard." That really rocked my world, because I couldn't think of another industry where that would be a problem. You would never say that about your plumber, for instance. "I like him, but he really spends all day plumbing. You know? He doesn't take a break. He doesn't have a cigarette. I don't know if I quite trust that." But in entertainment, you want it to look as if it's effortless.

So, I spend a lot of time simplifying my line and simplifying my books, so that they can be as effortless-seeming as possible. For example, in Knuffle Bunny, all the backgrounds are photographs; but they're not actually photographs, you see, because there's an emotional truth. Everyone's eyes do us this great favor. They hide all of the ugly stuff. They work as a beauty filter.

When I took these photographs, my neighborhood didn't look as good as it looked to me when I'm walking down the street, because there are air conditioners coming out of these Victorian buildings. There are garbage cans everywhere. There is trash. All this stuff is very distracting to the reality of the street, and it's not how those streets felt. So, I spent an inordinate amount of time getting rid of that stuff.

I had to make sure that I got rid of it in a way that you would never notice. So, the digital files on those photographs are huge, but they look like snapshots. That's the sort of effort that goes into a book. Again, if the reader notices it, you've failed.

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Punk Rock Pigeon

The pigeon in Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! is just pure child. I know, certainly from my childhood, that all I was being told was, "No. No, no, no." So, it's so great to be able to yell "No!". I think it's very punk rock. I go to a library, and I've got 500 kids yelling at the top of their lungs, "No!" to me in a library. That just rocks. It's a very super-cool thing.

The trick is to be able to deny this character its very essence, what it wants more than anything else and, at the same time, have sympathy for that character. I think it says a great thing for the empathy of children and adults who laugh at this - that they can deny this bird and still like him.

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Draw it yourself

When I design a character, it's very important to me that a four-year-old can reasonably draw that character, because I think that the book is only part of the experience. Reading is only part of the experience. I want those characters to become so alive that kids create their own comics and their own books, using my characters - in the same way that I started out drawing Charlie Brown and then developed my own characters. I'm designing this character to be as simple as possible, so that a four-year-old can draw it and at the same time, putting him or her in these crazy positions.

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"Never trust anyone who has not brought a book with them." — Lemony Snicket