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Child's Play
Childrens book author/illustrator Mo Willems makes a hard job look easy
Children's book writer and illustrator Mo Willems. (Photo: Marty Umans)

Before he was an award winning children’s book writer and illustrator, Mo Willems had what many people would consider a dream job.

He was an animator and a writer who worked with Sesame Street, Nickelodeon and the Cartoon Network. He won a half dozen Emmys and served a head writer for a #1 rated show on Cartoon Network, Codename: Kids Next Door.

He had it made, but he yearned for something else – more freedom, more time with his family, and less stress. He decided to try children’s books, and became a breakout success with his 2004 debut, Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!, which became a New York Times bestseller.

Willems will be in Savannah for an appearance at E. Shaver Booksellers Wednesday, June 22.

When asked why he gave up a prime TV gig to pursue the uncertainties of a new career in books, Willems refuses to answer. Instead he offers up an anecdote from a recent afternoon.

“I’d like to tell you the story of the water–gun battle I had with my daughter and her pal today,” says Willems. “Even though I cheated and grabbed the hose during an official ”reloading truce,“ I still lost and found myself completely soaked. You should ask my buddies in animation how they spent their lunch break.”

Since the fateful day when he chose to change mediums, Willems became surprisingly prolific in a fairly short period of time, and he’s completed dozens of books during the last several years, with recurring characters like the Knuffle Bunny, the Pigeon, and the dynamic duo of Elephant and Piggie.

While he won’t talk about why he changed professions, he’s more than willing to toss unsubtle hints, and the flexibility of working on different characters and stories at a whim, rather than working perpetually within a single set of characters for a TV show was a definite plus.

“Writing and drawing books offers me a freedom to do what I want and mix it up from project to project that TV would have a hard time replicating,” he explains during an exchange via email last week.

What can’t be questioned is the fact that his books have struck a chord with young readers (and/or the parents of soon–to–be–readers), garnering him accolades that include three Caldecott Honors, two Geisel Medals, two Carnegie medals and more.

His overwhelming success might imply that the work comes easy for him, but Willems explains that his recipe is fairly simple: Treat kids like people.

“Most people are too afraid to admit that kids are the same species as we are,” he says. “They try to lecture them into place instead of telling a ripping yarn.”

Although most of the publishing industry is trying to figure out how to adapt to the ever–changing realm of consumer electronics and digital media, for Willems, technology hasn’t changed his job at all.

“Having a computer and scanner allows me to produce my work without the help of assistants, but the ”technology“ of storytelling hasn’t changed in 5,000 years,” Willems says. “Tools don’t tell stories.”

Book Signing: Mo Willems

When: Wednesday, June 22, 3:30–5:30 p.m.

Where: E. Shaver Bookseller, 326 Bull St.

Cost: Free