Author/illustrator Mo Willems is a genuine superstar in the world of children’s entertainment — and the creative energy that got him to that level keeps churning out idiosyncratic wonders.
Willems will appear at the Eric Carle Museum, 125 West Bay Road, in Amherst, on Sunday, March 27, at 11:30 a.m. for a public discussion of his work.
Willems’ career is extremely multi-faceted, from his start as a six-time Emmy-winning writer and animator for “Sesame Street” to the creation of acclaimed TV shows like “The Off-Beats” and “Sheep In The Big City” and his three-time Caldecott Medal-winning children’s book career, including “Don’t Let The Pigeon Drive The Bus” and “Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale.”
Earlier this month, Willems saw the area debut of a stage musical version of “Knuffle Bunny” at the Academy of Music in Northampton, where he now lives with his family.
He had originally written the adaptation for the Kennedy Center, and was very hands-on in that production. Encountering the touring company made the experience completely different for Willems.
“In a weird way, it was more of a play because I had no contact with these guys until I saw the piece,” Willems said. “There’s something very romantic about being able to walk out of your door into a great theater, see a play that you wrote, and then go walk and get your dog license, and go home. It
was an awesome day.”
When Willems was asked to create a Knuffle Bunny musical, his initial response was that it was such a bad idea that he couldn’t resist.
“The idea of writing a musical about a character who can’t speak seemed somewhat oxymoronic and I gravitate toward bad ideas,” he said. “Once you get past not good to bad, then there’s a whole super bad that kind of turns into awesome. Most of my ideas have been super bad, that’s where I come from.”
For Willems, the challenge of adapting his picture book into a stage production had a lot to do with taking advantage of a different medium and figuring out how to take advantage of its dictates while still remaining faithful to the source work.
“A musical is a whole different ball of wax,” Willems said. “In some ways, you’re starting from scratch because you have the architecture of a plot, you know what the beginning is and you know who the main characters are.”
“In the musical, we put in a lot of fantasy elements — there’s a giant brassiere that attacks the dad, and a huge shirt, and a laundry battle scene and all these other things that you wouldn’t have in the book. The book is fairly realistic in its presentation, so that was part of it.”
Willems was also grateful for the time he was allowed to perfect the work, something he was not accustomed to in previous efforts.
“I’ve written a lot of songs and I’ve written a lot of dialogue,” said Willems, “but it was all pretty much television and in television you don’t often have the opportunity to revise because there just isn’t time. Here, in theater, there’s no money, but there’s an incredible amount of time, so I was able to spend a long time working on the piece.”
“I was also able to go and hang out with the actors and workshop and rewrite and refigure things out as I was with them. That was an extraordinary luxury and I really enjoyed that.”
Willems said it seemed like the right time for such a move, and has noticed a trend among his contemporaries to transform their books into plays or performances. He proclaims it a renaissance and hopes that it will transform the view of performers and creators in children’s stage entertainment.
“If you say ‘I write children’s books,’ most people will say, ‘aw, that’s awesome,’ but if you say, ‘I write children’s plays,’ they go ‘Ooooh,’ and worry that you’ll start juggling,” he said.
One thing that pleases Willems about the musical is the unique quality of the experience that he thinks is offered through stage productions. Any given performance is a one-time experience, it’s special and it also requires a bit of work on the part of an audience just by that very
“Kids don’t watch movies anymore, they watch scenes from movies and they watch them over and over again,” Willems said. “Here’s something that can’t be repeated. That performance in Northampton will never happen again. And I think that because we are so used to being able to have whatever we want at our fingertips, it becomes more interesting.”
“Try to explain to your kids that when “Star Wars” came out, it was the first time anyone saw a movie more than once. The thought of going to see the same movie twice was insane. And if a television show reran, people were angry. They never wanted to see the same thing twice. That is not the case today. Now we find the little things we like and we watch them to death.”
Willems saw the child of one of his friends immediately proclaim that he wanted to see the play again. The answer was, “You can’t,” and that reality caused the play to resonate in ways that little else does for a child in this day and age.
“It’s not like you can’t because we don’t love you, or you can’t because we don’t want you to, you can’t,” said Willems. “The point is that that kid spent the next six months singing the songs from that musical because he remembered it in a way that he would not remember any other form of pop culture.”
In some ways the stage production represents a return to his roots in some ways. Very early on, Willems was a stand-up and sketch comedy performer in New York City, what he describes as “weird downtown theater stuff.” It’s his television work, though, that gives him perspective in contrast to his adventures in publishing, where he has met with wild success for coming at things as sincerely as he did with his animation. It’s all about how scores can be interpreted differently depending on the playing field.
“It’s a question of numbers. I had a television series that at the time was very unique in that they let me do whatever I wanted to do and it was a very personal thing. It was very silly and my sense of humor.”
“Three or four hundred thousand people would watch that show and it was a failure. It was very expensive, not that I was getting the money, but there were a lot of animators needed, it was a big, big risk. Very quickly they said ‘Not enough people are watching this show. This is a crazy individual show, it’s too expensive, you’re out of here.’ “
By contrast, Willems has been a phenomenon in the world of children’s books. He puts it down to the differences in investment that allowed a publisher to take an initial leap on an untested author with a singular vision — the potential audience translated into success in the publishing world.
“I made a book, it costs very, very little to make a book, in terms of what the publisher has to put out,” he said. “You make a television series, even a cheap cable show, and you’re well into the tens of millions. You make a book, you’re maybe into the hundreds of thousands, I don’t know, but very little money for a company of that size.
“One of the great things about children’s book publishing is that by buying a successful book, you are in fact helping to finance an unsuccessful author. I was nobody, but they were making money off other authors and they said ‘Well, let’s just take some of that profit and throw some spaghetti on the wall.’ My stuff was very, very personal, very idiosyncratic, but you know if 300,000 people buy a book, you’ve got a massive hit. It’s a question of numbers and a question of being able to take those risks.”
Willems’ first book effort — not published until 15 years after he wrote it and following his success with children’s books — was a travelogue built around the idea that he did a cartoon a day while traveling the world. It draws on cartooning as an inspiration, a field that Willems credits as that of some of his earliest work and one for which he has great admiration. At 14, his first professional job was doing a comic strip called “Surrealty” in the local real estate weekly, and he did comic strips in his high school and college newspapers.
“I’ve always aspired to do comics, and that’s what I wanted to do when I was a kid. When I was 5 I wrote Charles Schulz and said ‘Can I have your job when you’re dead?’ “ said Willems.
Over time, he’s written for comic books and Mad Magazine, he took over Hilary Price’s comic strip “Rhymes With Orange” for a week and most recently contributed a comic to a trial weekly comics page put out by the hipster literary magazine McSweeny’s. Williams calls it all “dabbling” and says that he comes to his cartooning work as a fan.
Willems says that there is no magic formula to his success in children’s books and chalks it up to hard work. The book itself — and what’s behind it — is the one aspect of a project that is entirely in his hands. He puts as much into a picture book as he does anything else he works on, and that’s the business plan he’ll continue with.
“When my first book came out, I thought no one would buy it, I didn’t think I’d make a single sale. And then when one person bought it, I figured if one person is going to buy it, then probably everyone will. Those were my options. There were only two options and it wasn’t for me to decide. All I can control is making the best book I can. It’s the only thing in my control.”