Best-selling children's author Mo Willems on sparking creativity and joy
Judy Woodruff: Author and illustrator Mo Willems has created beloved characters and sold millions of children's books.
Now he's taking to the stage and making new kinds of work for both kids and grownups.
Correspondent Paul Solman has the story.
It's part of our ongoing series on arts and culture, Canvas.
Paul Solman: Now playing at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., a musical about a pigeon who really, really, really wants to drive a bus, based on a book by one of America's bestselling authors.
Mo Millems: My name is Mo Willems. I'm a...
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
Mo Millems: Thank you.
Paul Solman: This latter-day Dr. Seuss even spruced up the time-honored TV walking shot to cover our narration introducing him, letting his pigeon do the walking.
Mo Willems has created over 50 books about characters from the boisterous bird to anxious elephant and upbeat piggy, to abandoned Knuffle Bunny to Nanette's Baguette.
Willems is now the Kennedy Center's first education artist in residence, making music, art, the pigeon musical.
Mo Millems: They're grown adults playing with puppets, yelling and screaming and running around. Hopefully, that's going to engender not just laughs on stage, but when the kids go home, the grownups will pick up a stuffed animal and pretend that it's a puppet and start to be silly again.
I'm more interested in sparking some sort of creativity, some type of joy that happens after the show, after the performance, after you read the book.
Paul Solman: Is that why the drawings are so simple?
Mo Millems: Absolutely.
Every one of my characters is designed so that a 5-year-old can reproduce it. I want my books to be played, not just read. The most important part of the book, the heart of the book, is the audience reacting to what I have splattered on the page.
Paul Solman: And, by audience, you don't just mean the kid. You mean the parent or, in my case, grandparent who's reading it...
Mo Millems: Absolutely.
Paul Solman: ... acting it out, the voices.
Hey, can I drive the bus?
Mo Millems: I need you. You are my orchestra.
Mo Millems: And if I write a book called the happy bunny had a happy time in happy land, you're going to read it. The happy bunny had a happy time. And you skip a couple pages.
Paul Solman: Oh, God.
Mo Millems: And you're at the end.
Paul Solman: I have been there.
Mo Millems: Right. We have all been there.
But if I write something that jazzes you and get you to get the shame-ectomy to start yelling and screaming and jumping up and down, and maybe tickling or what not, now, suddenly these books are magic.
Paul Solman: Willems' work is silly, sure, but it also explores questions central to kids.
Mo Millems: You're just dealing with fundamental things. Why are we here? Why are people nice? Why aren't people nice? What can I do? Can I drive a bus?
Paul Solman: "Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!" was Willems' first book in 2003.
Mo Millems: So the pigeon was rejected by -- and I tend to exaggerate, so we will just cut that number in half -- 23 billion publishers.
Mo Millems: And they said the exact same thing as the publisher that took the book. They said it's unusual.
They were all right. The question is, is unusual pejorative, or is it positive?
Paul Solman: So why did they all say no?
Mo Millems: Well, because it's terrifying doing something that hasn't been done before, right? I mean, it's a book all in dialogue with sort of a chicken scratch drawing. The audience is told it has to yell no back at the book. But we never tell them that they need to do it.
Also, it's a pigeon. It's a rat with wings. Like, a children's book is supposed to be an adorable bear or a wonderful bunny, something that you want to hug and -- nobody wants to hug and squeeze a pigeon.
Paul Solman: That first book earned Willems the first of three Caldecotts, the highest prize in kid lit.
Mo Millems: The pigeon just arrived one day in a sketchbook, and literally the first drawing I made of the pigeon, the pigeon said, why are you drawing other things? And he just -- he was a jerk from day one.
Paul Solman: But you didn't hear him say that? You...
Mo Millems: We communicate through doodles, yes. So, part of the exploration for this play was for me to ask, who is this pigeon, which is also me asking, who am I, which is why I need to be with very close friends who can tell me the honest truth.
Paul Solman: Willems co-wrote the script with Tom Warburton, a friend since the two were animators 25 years ago, and an admirer of Willems' first film, "The Man Who Yelled."
Mo Millems: An animated film by me, Mo Willems.
Tom Warburton: Mo was very good at branding. He was already Mo Willems even before he was doing -- he was doing his picture books.
Paul Solman: In that film...
Tom Warburton: Yes.
Paul Solman: ... he must mention his name, I don't know how many times.
Tom Warburton: Not just in that film. In everything he does, he mentions his name over and over and over again. Yes, yes. That was -- that was just the start.
Actor: Oh my goodness. A sheep.
Paul Solman: Over the years, the two collaborated on the Cartoon Network's short-lived "Sheep in the Big City."
Mo Millems: And when we would look at the ratings, you would get a 5, that was the number of people watching it. It was an unpopular show.
Paul Solman: But their show "Codename: Kids Next Door" was a hit. Willems went on to write for "Sesame Street," for which he won six Emmys.
The musical poses a different problem.
Tom Warburton: How do you take a 40-page book about a pigeon not being able to drive a bus and turn it into an hour-long musical?
Paul Solman: Stick to a good story for kids, says Deborah Wicks La Puma, who wrote the music.
Deborah Wicks La Puma: You can't linger in a moment for the sake of lingering in the moment or sounding beautiful. You know, the kids want to know what the story is and what's happening.
Actor: What if I don't like school?
Paul Solman: Willems' work has always kept the child's point of view front and center.
Mo Millems: Childhood is inherently unpleasant. And nothing is to your scale, right? The chairs, these chairs, are saying...
Paul Solman: Immense, yes.
Mo Millems: They're giant. They're saying, you don't belong here. You really shouldn't even be sitting here, right?
And everything is big, because you don't know. You're new. And the grownups, they take you out of situations. Like, if you're doing something, and you're having fun, some giant pair of hands grabs you and picks you up, and puts you in another room. And you get in trouble for complaining?
Paul Solman: Artist in residence Willems in an upcoming Kennedy Center project is painting abstractions based on Beethoven's symphonies, to be performed by the National Symphony Orchestra.
Mo Millems: I like to jump off the diving board and, halfway through, ask myself, do you know how to swim?
I knew nothing about music. I was -- I am painting on a scale I have never painted before. But there's no wrong way to hear a symphony. And there's no wrong way to express yourself.
Paul Solman: From Beethoven to bird.
For the "PBS NewsHour," this is Paul Solman, a new friend of Willems, an old friend of his books, in Washington, D.C., and my house outside Boston.
Judy Woodruff: And how can you not like that?