how-to by Lincoln Michel

Best-selling author Mo Willems on how to write and draw for children.

reading time 9 minutes

If you have a child in your life, they are probably a Mo Willems fan. His best-selling and award-winning  books are best known for their quirky humor, a sense of which you can glean from titles like Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed, We Are in a Book!, and Edwina, the Dinosaur Who Didn’t Know She Was Extinct. At the same time, his books tackle serious subjects like sadness or finding the limits of one’s ability, without being didactic or moralizing. I talked to Willems about funny words, auditioning characters, balancing text and illustration, and writing for children instead of to children.  

Lincoln Michel: You both write and illustrate most of your books. How do the text and images play off each other?
Mo Willems: I see illustration as a form of writing in the same way that Hitchcock said, “first write the movie, then you add the words.” I also see my typography as a form of illustration. If you end up with a spread that’s got a lot of text, that’s going to change the way the drawing works. So there’s always this codependency. A guideline for myself is that if you were to look at only the illustrations and it still made sense, then there are too many illustrations or the illustrations are too detailed. And if you were to look at only the text and it still made sense, then you’ve got too many words. The idea is that you’re writing incomprehensible books for illiterates. The illustration and the texts are co-dependent. It’s like a sick, sick marriage.

Children’s books are meant to be read over and over. How do you create something that’s made to be encountered countless times?
Well, that really is the key. The thing that matters is that even though you’ve got a punchline, the punchline cannot be what keeps the book alive. It’s got to be the characters and it’s got to be the question you’re asking. That final twist at the end, while it’s important, that’s not what you’re hanging your coat on. It’s: who are these characters? How real are they? How damaged are they? How funny are they? You gotta let the question, the core of the piece, be more interesting than the punchline.

Many of your books are aimed at early readers who have a very limited vocabulary. Are there any guidelines you use for creating musical and interesting and funny texts with very simple words?
When I was writing the Elephant and Piggie books, I had lists of words that were appropriate for first graders and second graders or what not. I made sure that I only had a very small number of polysyllabic words in each book and, if I did use them, that they were repeated and therefore you would get a certain fluency after reading the book a certain number of times. I was at Sesame Street for many years and we got a lot of child development seminars. So I learned to absorb some of that information and ignore some of that information. I would check each word to see what level it was and decide whether another word would be better or whether I cared, whether it was essential for the story. In terms of the musicality of the piece, that’s really were punctuation comes in. There’s a lot of call-and-response in the books. A character will say something with a period. Another character will say something with the question mark. And another character will say it with an exclamation point. It’s the same, say, three or four words of dialogue, but they each have a different meaning. So the story’s progressing, but by the end, you should be able to read that sentence with great fluency.

I wanted to ask about the weird language that’s in your books such as in Leonardo, the Terrible Monster about a monster who wants to scare “the tuna salad” out of someone. Do you try to weird the language in your books?
A funny sentence is a funny sentence, so there is that. What makes that a funny sentence is that everybody, even kids, know that “tuna salad” really means “shit.” There’s something a little bit dangerous and a little bit Rock ‘n’ Roll about that. I will usually write drafts that are perhaps a little bit more on the nose and then go back and change the words. In an early draft, probably it was “scare the shit” and I changed it. In the case of Edwina, the Dinosaur Who Didn’t Know She Was Extinct, Reginald Von Hoobie-Doobie comes from the fact that I really speak my own language. I’m very forgetful. The words come to me very slowly. So my wife and my kid have had to adapt to me saying, ‘will you hand me the hubby-hobby’ or ‘turn on the dipwang or the flinkel flap.’ I just make sounds and, in context, most of the time they get it. Reginald Von Hoobie-Doobie is funnier than, you know, Reginald Smith, so I would just put that in as a placeholder and say, well, I’ll come up with another name later, and then it turns out that the placeholder is better than anything else.

I’ve read that you like to draw your characters in a simple way so that your readers can steal them and make their own adventures — that you kind of encourage copyright infringement.
Right.

Can you talk about the processes of creating character designs? Do you tend to start more elaborate and simplify them after?
It is a long audition process for style. For me, that is [choosing a] pen, color styles, whether it’s going to be a digital drop-in, whether it’s a watercolor wash or marker wash. And paper. Paper’s really the most important. I find that a certain brush or certain pencil is horrible on one paper and wonderful on another paper. There’s a long audition process. It’s like dressing up the character and once I start to feel comfortable with the character, then I ask myself the more formal questions like: Could a kid draw this easily? Does it have too much detail? Does it have not enough detail? It also depends on the story. I think you’ll find that in books that I’ve done that have more words, the characters themselves are more complex.

So that is a conscious decision on your part.
It’s a balance thing. I think that if you’re seeing a lot of black line text on the page, you want to see a lot of black line marking on the characters so that there’s some sort of equilibrium there. Just in terms of black on the page. Sometimes I will write things that are so complex that I know I shouldn’t do the drawings, like The Story of Diva and Flea that Tony DiTerlizzi did or City Dog, Country Frog that Jon J. Muth did. I know that my style of drawing is idiosyncratic enough that people realize it’s me and they come to it with a certain expectation of silliness too. If I’m not writing in that type of silly way, it can’t be my drawings.

In your Elephant and Piggie books, and other ones aimed at very young readers, there is a lot of blank space on the page. Does this also tie into how a child will read them?
Just a lot of questions of rhythm, of page turn. You create rhythm because most teachers and parents have been programmed to spend the same amount of time on each page. If I’ve established that each page is one sentence, let’s say, and then I write a page and somebody has three sentences, chances are my reader will read that three times as quickly. And if I write consistently three sentences and then I have a page with one word, chances are that, that person’s going to read that word slower. So I’m trying to create a rhythm in terms of the parental performance.

That’s really interesting. So it’s almost like you’re pacing the scenes, like a film storyboard.
I’m writing a musical score and in a musical score there are notes and there are places where there are no notes.

If you were talking to a children’s book author who maybe only wants to write and not illustrate their books, would you recommend that they still doodle and draw?
Yes. It’s essential. You still have to. You still have to draw up a book, even if it’s only stick figures, it’s the only way you’re going to learn what works. I’ve written a couple books that I’ve not illustrated. I found it much, much more difficult and every time any artwork has come back, I’ve gotten rid of tons of words. So I always illustrate the books as I’m writing them even if someone else is going to do the illustrations.

Your books are very, very funny. And a lot of the humor comes down to the pacing and then also to the syntax and the punctuation that we talked about before. Do you draw inspiration from comedians or comic strips?
Absolutely. Yes. I have a very sort of Catholic view of a where to steal from. I will steal from anything that’s exciting. Certainly comedy. Stand-up comedy, sketch comedy. I started out as a performing comedian and pretty much everything I’ve ever written in terms of my television work has been sketch. And books are similar to sketch. My drawings are literally sketchy. And then of course, you can see the parallels to Peanuts a lot. A lot of high art. Alexander Calder, Miro. I grew up in New Orleans, so a lot of jazz, but also a lot of classical music, a lot of the sort of formal structure of the symphony and things like that. So yeah, I mean I’ve got a wide of interests and a wide range of things that I want to borrow from.

A lot of your books have kind of metafictional elements or fourth wall breaking. Some are even pretty postmodern, like We Are In a Book! Do you think there’s a way that children are more comfortable with that than adults?
Well, they just don’t know that it’s snobby yet. They don’t know that it’s coming from Ionesco. They don’t know that it’s artsy. It’s just funny. But here’s the thing, these are real characters to me. They’re living beings. I auditioned them. I figured out who they are or they become my friends. We Are In a Book! came from an interview where the interviewer said, what are they going to do when they grow up? And I was like, what are you talking about, they’re grown up. They work in books, they pay elephantine taxes and they live in a real world. And then I realized maybe they don’t realize that they work in books.

What do you think is the biggest mistake that aspiring children’s book authors make — or that adults in general misunderstand about children?
Most people write to children, not for children. So my guideline is that I always think of my audience, but I never think for my audience. Which is to say, it’s not my job to tell a kid how to live right. I’m not a rabbi, I’m not a minister. I’m not writing a guidebook. I’m writing a story. By and large, and it’s taken me years to get to this, I find that every book that I write, certainly that I find is worked out, is a question I don’t know the answer to. What’s friendship? How do you break up with a friend to then make up with a friend? Can I play too? How do you let somebody into a group? These are hard questions. How do you react to not getting what you want? How do you know what you want? And so if it’s a question that I don’t know the answer to, that I’m still struggling with, then it probably is universal, because I’ve been around a long time. I’m not going to do a book on how you tie your shoe, because there’s an answer to that. But I could do a book on what is it like not being able to tie your shoe when other people around you can and how do you deal with that? That’s a real issue.

You’re not going in with just like a moral message that you want to impart.
No, no, absolutely not. Because when’s the last time you picked up a book that said, ‘Oh, this has got a great moral lesson.’ I can wait to read that, to be instructed on how to do things correctly.  I feel like that the stories that I tell, the audience creates the meaning. I want to leave that open. The first two reviews I ever got for Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!, one said, I love the book because it teaches kids never to give up and to always fight for the dreams. And the next one said, I love this book because it teaches kids when to stop and to know that they can’t do everything.  And both of those reviewers are right because that, that’s what spoke to them. I just asked the question.

Cover image: Marty Umans.

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