Author Spotlight: Mo Willems, part 1

This is an unusual Author Spotlight in that today, we’ll be talking about a writer who is not a real person but actually just a character in an indie movie.

Brooklyn writer Mo’s life was getting droller by the minute. But when he teams up with an unlikely ally, a bird on his head, they learn the true meaning of art and friendship.

I’m obviously kidding, sort of. But in addition to literally being named Mo, he is a wonderfully weird children’s book writer and former writer for Sesame Street, which is picturesquely quirky enough to make John Krasinski want to direct an incredibly average film, in which he also stars and gives the hands-down worst performance, about the guy.

But though I feel obligated to make fun of anything I really, really like (no YOU need therapy), the main thing we need to talk about when we talk about Mo Willems is that his books are just the best, especially for preschool-age types.

A quick list of my very favorites:

  1. Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! and its sequels, since 2003. In his career as a children’s book writer, Willems is probably the most famous for his series in which a cantankerous pigeon, who I always read with a (bad) sassy Brooklyn accent for some reason,
    Something about the line “My cousin Herb drives a bus almost every day!” makes me want to channel this guy.*

    tries to coax us readers into letting him do various things he’s not supposed to do in the absence of the bus driver (who, frankly, we ought to start charging for our pigeon-sitting services).

    They aren’t the only books that feature a protagonist who throws a tantrum (see Anna Dewdney’s Llama Llama books, for example), but it’s a particularly well-executed play in the Pigeon books. Given how constantly little kids are told “no,” it is obviously hilarious and delightful to them to be able to say it to someone else for a change, and the tantrum is definitely played dont-let-the-pigeon-inside2for their tiny laughs. Yet asking little kids to role-play in this way—-asking them to be the ones that prevent the capricious Pigeon from doing some lunatic thing or other that’s clearly against his best interests—-also has the potential to teach them so many soft skills at once: empathy, responsibility, boundaries, and probably more I’m not thinking of (ETA: an especially smart reader suggested I add “conviction, follow through—–all necessary for learning how to problem solve and lead with care” YES!).

  2. Edwina, the Dinosaur who Didn’t Know She Was Extinct, 2006. I gave Edwina a shout-out 0786837489-edwina3int_zoombefore, but I’m highlighting her again here because I think this is an underrated gem in Willems’s archive. Little jerknugget Reginald Von Hoobie-Doobie, in addition to having a never-not-hilarious name, is a little Men’s Rights Activist in training, and Edwina is kind and gracious to him but ultimately breaks through a brick wall in a burst of IDGAF when he tries to explain to her how extinct she allegedly is, and proceeds to bake everyone some great cookies. It’s basically all of my life goals in picture book form.
  3. Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs….and Leonardo, the Terrible Monster….and Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed…you guys there are too many favorites. Willems is prolific and consistent, with a goofy sense of humor that’s perhaps a little sarcastic but without anything resembling meanness driving it. His characters are largely weirdos and often flawed, which is an incredibly difficult thing to balance within the scantness of a children’s picture book, but he does so with a lightness and intelligence that keeps his characters and the lessons they learn from overwhelming. It’s rare to be unable to predict the ending of a children’s story, and have that actually be a good thing, but Willems pulls it off.maybe-not-safe-enough-4x22In fact, that may be the best thing about Willems’s writing: it’s so hugely entertaining that your kid will hardly even notice that she’s actually learning—-and learning the kinds of things that can’t be taught in a worksheet or through memorization, but only through stories. I actually don’t think I’m being dramatic if I say that Willems’s work is a great example of why children’s books—-or any books—-matter.

    Coming soon: Part 2, which focuses on his early reader series, Elephant and Piggie.

*who is actually supposed to be from Chicago, so the bad accent is even worse. And I’m beginning to think I’m revealing more about myself than I ever intended to on this blog with my movie references.


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