An interview with Mo Willems, author of Knuffle Bunny and Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus. On Babble.com’s 5-Minute Time Out.Gwynne Watkins
I think every parent in Brooklyn owns Knuffle Bunny. The books seem autobiographical – are they?
The real Trixie just started first grade, where her teacher read both Knuffle Bunny and Knuffle Bunny Too to her class. After the reading, Trixie’s teacher turned to her and asked, “Trixie, is this a true story?” Trixie gave it a moment’s thought, then replied, “Y’know, we’re really trying to get away from that question:”
There’s not much I can say to top that, but I’d be remiss not mentioning that every detail in those books are true. Except, of course, the parts I made up.
What are your most and least favorite things about raising kids in the city?
Our attachment to Brooklyn has only increased by having a child. All I have to do is open the front door, plop down a bucket of chalk, and instantly the sidewalk is swarmed with kids drawing and hanging out. That beats spending all your time shuttling back and forth in a car.
You must get so many letters from children. What are the funniest responses you’ve gotten to your books?
Because I feel that my books should be played instead of merely read, I eagerly look forward to getting my monthly envelope of fan mail packed with kids’ versions of my characters in their stories. The kids’ thought process is always unique, honest, and hilarious. You can check out some choice examples on my website.
How did you come up with the unique illustration style of the Knuffle Bunny books, which superimposes illustrated characters on grayscale photographs?
Laziness and character. The story dictated that the piece feel like a reminiscence, such as an old photo album. Plus, I hate drawing backgrounds. But as I worked with the pictures, I discovered that, unlike my forgiving eye, they did not edit out the ugliness of my neighborhood. Consequently, I had to spend quite a bit of time digitally removing air-conditioners, trash and garbage cans, so that the pictures could have the “emotional truth” of my personal experience. It was technically challenging and created huge files, but ultimately made the story feel more real and handmade.
Your sense of humor is so rooted in a child’s world, yet it really resonates with adults. I can’t read your books without cracking up. Have you ever written for grown-ups, or considered it? What keeps you writing for children?
My early cartoon films were made for grown-ups, as were the weekly essays I wrote for BBC radio. But as my career progressed, I found myself being asked to write for children more and more. At some point, it became both more enjoyable and more difficult than adult fare. You can’t razzle-dazzle kids with clever allegory or historical precedent; everything has to be simple, straight, pure funny. Writing for kids also has greater impact; no one ever suspects the picture book. If you want to see grown-up stuff from me, you can always check out You Can Never Find a Rickshaw When it Monsoons, a cartoon diary of my year-long trip around the world in 1990-91.
You’ve worked in a lot of mediums: TV, radio, print, even ceramics. Is there one you’re still itching to try?
Sure, I get jazzed by the idea of doing more wire sculpture, or gigantic cartoon paintings, or all kinds of stuff. But right now I’m too busy having fun making books and doing interviews.