By Chana Stiefel and Donna Cangelosi
This month, we met our critique partner Nancy Anton at the MOseum, the New York Historical Society’s exhibit, “The Art and Whimsy of Mo Willems.” Mo is the creator of some of our favorite picture book series, including KNUFFLE BUNNY, ELEPHANT & PIGGIE, & of course those cranky PIGEON books! Don’t worry, we didn’t let the pigeon drive the bus. But we did come away with lots of great takeaways to share with you.
Creating EMOtional Characters
CS: As children’s book authors and illustrators, we know that we have to heighten the emotion of our characters. Readers should experience that emotion on every page. Mo’s lovable characters are filled with emotion. How does he do it time and time again? The best way to create characters with emotion, Mo says, is to “get inside” your characters. To quote Mo, “Because my characters have big feelings, I have to have big feelings…I’m kind of like an actor. If I’m drawing Piggie being excited, I have to be excited. My family has to watch out because if I’m drawing Pigeon being angry all day, I’m probably gonna be a little angry.”
DC: Mo’s characters have big personalities too. He says, “All my characters are thoroughly neurotic and have very deep emotional lives.”
CS: Yes, they have a lot of attitude too. As Mo’s characters grow in his imagination, they start to make demands of him. “These characters get to decide what they want to do,” he says.
DC: I love his story about Knuffle Bunny’s makeover. In original drafts, Knuffle Bunny was a stuffed bear. But Mo felt that this inanimate bear couldn’t show enough emotion. With a bunny, however, he could use the bunny’s ears to present feelings. If the ears stood up straight, the bunny was surprised. If they drooped, the bunny felt sad. If the ears were “wiggly waggly,” the bunny was freaked out.
DC: Living in New York fueled Mo’s imagination. “[Pigeon’s] personality came from New York,” he says. “There is no way I could have created the pigeon if I had spent my life living somewhere else.”
CS: So true! Our best stories come from our life experience. KNUFFLE BUNNY is a “photo album” of Mo’s reminiscences of raising a child in Brooklyn. Trixie grows from story to story.
MOlding Words and Images
CS: Mo doesn’t see himself as an author or an illustrator, but rather as a cartoonist. He uses words, drawings, and shapes to create one work. His words are a type of illustration. “If the letters are big, you’re gonna yell them, if they’re small, you’re gonna whisper them,” he says. He wants his books to be “played,” not just read.
DC: And he wants his illustrations to be expressive enough to stand alone. He says, “The true test of success is if the reader understands the character’s emotion through the silhouette alone.” I love this example of Pigeon.
DC: Mo crafts heartwarming stories about friendship, attachment, sacrifice and love. He does this through facial expressions, body language and simple language.
CS: Totally! Mo’s deceptively simple stories include so many big themes: understanding yourself in relation to society, controlling selfish impulses, wrestling demons of self doubt, feeling alienated and finding acceptance—“weighty issues faced by Pigeons, five-year-olds, and adults alike,” he says. The exhibit explains how Mo tackles the big questions with empathy and a wacky sense of humor. “He maps behavioral ideals in his books without finger-wagging, an approach summed up by his motto to ‘always think of your audience, but never think for your audience.’”
Getting MO’ Done
CS: “I can’t make a book. It’s too hard,” moans Mo. But he can break up his work into small, manageable chunks—write text, make a drawing, ink a drawing, and so on. Mo manages his productivity with a workflow chart that looks like this. For each completed step, he colors in a little box. Coloring the squares is like getting a cookie for a job well done, he says.
DC: Speaking of getting Mo’ Done, Here are some inspiring quotes by Mo to get you back to your writing and illustrating:
“The inability to write merely means the ideas growing in your mind are too fragile to be transplanted onto the page, which is easily solved by being patient. The only way to get ‘blocked’ is by trying to write too much too fast.”
“This stuff for kids, it’s a great responsibility. I’m making something that has to hold a story. It has to be something that can be read a billion times. It has to be a kid’s friend. You don’t just knock that out.”
MOst of the quotes in this blog post come from the exhibit’s fabulous audio tour narrated by Mo Willems. Please take a MOment and share your favorite Mo Willems’ books and your own takeaways in the Comments below.
Donna Cangelosi and Chana Stiefel are picture book critique partners & friends who are passionate about kids' books & are eager to share tidbits from their writing journey with other aspiring writers.