Getting to Know Mo Willems

February 12, 2010 at 4:37 PM Leave a comment

I recently watched Getting to Know Mo Willems, a short video by Scholastic and Weston Woods about Mo Willems and his work. Last spring I wrote a short paper about Mo Willems for my Materials for Youth class and I’ve read all of his books, so it was fun to get more insight into his creative process and to see him drawing and to see the little sketch book out of which the Pigeon grew.

When he was talking about the art for the Knuffle Bunny books, I thought it was interesting that he took photographs of his neighborhood but then edited them to take out the trash cans and the air conditioners and to replace missing letters on signs. He said that he didn’t want the photographs to reflect how places actually look, but how they felt–and I think that’s one of the strengths of those books, how well they capture a sense of place.

I think the thing I love most about Mo Willems’s books are his characters’ facial expressions and body language. In the Pigeon books, so much is conveyed just with a raised eyebrow or a lowered lid. And especially in the Elephant and Piggie books where the vocabulary is so limited, so much of the narrative relies on what the illustrations convey. Piggie and Gerald look excited, exasperated, dubious, frightened, and gleeful all with a few small changes in pencil strokes.

In the video, Mo talks a little bit about how the Elephant and Piggie books are just plain fun to draw, but that he also really enjoys the challenge of writing Easy Reader books with fixed vocabularies of about 50 words. In fact, his first Geisel Award acceptance speech (read a blog post with the speech or just read the speech) is done with a limited vocabulary and simple grammar and hints at the difficulties in writing an Easy Reader book, but also shows how you can still be clever within those constraints.

My first week at the synagogue I was surprised by a group of preschoolers who had arrived for a storytime I didn’t know I was going to be giving. Still pretty unfamiliar with the collection, I grabbed two of the Pigeon books off of the shelf and read them with total abandon, yelling and gesturing and whispering and fake-crying. The kids totally loved it, and I think the teachers were impressed with the new librarian’s enthusiasm. I’ve grown to know the collection better in the months I’ve worked there, but I can always count on Mo to captivate an audience of otherwise wiggly kids.

I was lucky enough to meet Mo at ALA last summer (I was the first in line!) and have him sign a few of my books. Honestly, I was a little giddy finally getting to meet the man behind the best books I’d read in years–and that experience really impressed upon me how connecting with authors (and illustrators) through author visits or even Skype can be so inspiring for kids of all ages and can intensify their love for what they’re reading. It’s really important for me to be able to take that great experience I was lucky enough to have as an up-and-coming professional at a conference and find a way to give it to the young people I’m hoping to serve because man, meeting Mo (and MT Anderson, too) was the highlight of my ALA Annual experience.

For more Mo, check out Mo Willems’s website, his doodles blog, or follow the Pigeon on Twitter.

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