Q&A: Mo Willems Talks About His YouTube Channel, Summer Memories, and Stumbling Through the Creative Life

The New York Times best-selling author and Caldecott Honor-awarded picture book illustrator talks with School Library Journal about creating the Mo Willems Workshop channel and how librarians can use it with their students.

We rode the elevator with Mo Willems* to learn more about the Mo Willems Workshop YouTube channel and the staying power of some of kid lit's favorite characters.

*An actual elevator ride with Mo Willems did not take place.


Florence Simmons: Give us the 30-second elevator pitch for the Mo Willems Workshop YouTube channel.

Mo Willems: First of all, which floor are you going to? I’m happy to press the button for you.

Up until now, my characters have worked in books, but what do they do when they’re not being read? These shows are a chance to see my characters at play and, hopefully, encourage play at the same time. Each show goes to the core personality traits of the characters. There’s a wide, funny gap between The Pigeon’s deep assurance and shallow expertise. Knuffle Bunny is about real kids’ real stories. I like to doodle.


FS: Can you talk a little bit about the journey from idea to implementation? What was involved in putting this together?

MW: One of the joys of working with writers, puppets, comedians, and kids is the collaboration. Our development process focuses on the book character and the key question they inhabit. What about each character will spark creativity differently in kids and former kids?

From there, we work together to create a gumbo of different people’s insights and skills. When it works, the production becomes more interesting than anything one person could do on their own. These collaborators are all wonderfully talented and creative people who know who the most important person in the room is: the kid in the audience.


FSWas it hard for you to make the jump from writing print books to going multimedia with this project?

MW: I spent my early career making short independent films, writing and animating for PBS’ Sesame Street, and creating my own cartoon series for cable channels. So, this is a return to my roots. A difference is that now I can put some of my theories about how to create for the screen into practice. For example: Most nonfiction assumes that the audience knows nothing about any given topic, but The Pigeon Explains assumes the host knows nothing.


FS: What’s a “hidden gem” on the site that you’d like librarians to know about, and how can they use it with their students? 

MW: When we make anything at the Hidden Pigeon Company our first question is: “How will this spark active creativity and curious questioning in our audience?” The final question is: “What kind of innovative ways are those awesome librarians going to come up with to share these shows?” I’m excited to find out.


FS: The Pigeon…Elephant & Piggie…these characters and these stories continue to stay in the minds and in the hearts of readers. What do you think it is about these characters that makes them have such a lasting impact?

MW: I like to think that I have grown as a person over the past few decades and that the questions I have asked my characters to ask themselves is a part of that. In terms of design and personality, it has been a conscious decision to let my characters keep growing and changing over time. They’ve appeared in activity books, in theatrical productions, cartoon shorts, even operas. Why not extend that to the very small screen as well?

As to why or how others connect to my work: I do not know. I do know, however, that I’m deeply appreciative. A creative life is a series of unsteady stumblesluckily, curiosity and gratitude have helped me stumble forwards.


FS: It's summertime! What is your favorite memory of summer from growing up?

MW: Summers were a creative season when I was a kid, because there was enough unstructured time to let my mind first get bored, then wander, skip, jump, and take flights of fancy. The challenge of my professional life has been trying to recreate the time and space to allow my curiosity to stand, walk, and explore the wild garden of ideas growing all around me.

Oh, is this your floor? Have a nice day.

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