Thursday, October 7, 2010

Mo Willems Author Talk

Mo Willems often begins talks with a story about 3,472 little pigs. He explained to the Children's Book Guild of Washington DC that he does this for two reasons. The first is that it takes a couple of minutes, and the second is that it will never work as a picture book. He told us that because we can already see the wolf, the pigs, and the houses we do not need pictures. For Mo to write a picture book it has to be incomprehensible: "My job is to write incomprehensible books for illiterates." A literary rock star, Mo has published over thirty children's books receiving critical and commercial success. He spoke to the Children's Book Guild of Washington DC about his creative process, his views on writing and illustrating, and the importance of emotional truth in books. The audience punctuated his remarks with laughter throughout the event -- the humor of his books translating into his presentation.

His process of creating manuscripts is reductive, if he can read the words alone and know what is going on then it has too many words. If he can look at just his storyboard and see what is going on then it has too many pictures. So he takes out lines and takes out pictures. What is left is a story that leaves room for his audience. He believes that it is not up to him to decide what his books are about, it is up to his audience to give his books meaning.

Not understanding what his books are about is key for Mo. If he really understands the message of the story then it becomes didactic and that "is the death of all stories." His view is that the worst thing you can do to a child or adult is force them to read something they should read. An example of leaving room for his audience that he shared with us was from Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus (his debut children's picture book and winner of a Caldecott Honor in 2004). He quoted two early reviews, one saying they loved the book because it taught children never to give up, the other loved the book because it taught the value of the word no. What Mo thought was great about these two contrasting reviews was that they were both right. That was exactly what the book is about. For them.

Before Mo was a published children's book author/illustrator he worked in TV, most notably on Sesame Street, where he won six Emmy Awards, but also on a show called Sheep in the Big City. When Sheep was cancelled Mo went looking for answers, searching for them "where all true answers lie: the internet." A turning point for Mo was reading a comment from a ten-year-old who said that what he did not like about the show Sheep was it looked like the writer was trying too hard. This shook Mo up. He tried to think of any other profession where trying too hard was a negative.

However, it is the case with writing. The reader does not want a relationship with the author. They are looking for a relationship with the characters. If they feel that Mo exists in any way then he becomes the third wheel at the party. Since his writing on Sheep looked like it took effort it was interfering with the pleasure the audience was getting from watching. Another example Mo discussed with us took place during his time on Sesame Street. He was in his twenties and living in Brooklyn, and when he would explain to friends that he wrote for Sesame Street they would be excited -- "Elmo! I love Elmo!"-- but also confused. What exactly did that mean, writing for Elmo? They could not figure out that Elmo was written. They thought he was just Elmo and the camera just happened to be there. That Mo told us, is the sign of good writing. When nobody wants to know there is a writer -- you have to be invisible.

One way Mo makes himself invisible is by manipulating his audience. His belief is you have to show the emotional truth and the best way to show the emotional truth is by "lying." He gave the example of Where the Wild Things Are: the illustrations begin very small, then they get very big, then they take over, and then they get very small again, as Max goes from reality to fantasy and back to reality again. But if the child actually notices this then the writer has failed. He shared a few examples of audience manipulation from his own work that he hoped they did not notice.

In the Pigeon books Mo manipulates his audience with colors. The backgrounds are not places but solid colors that are like a giant mood ring explaining what the Pigeon is feeling. As he becomes more and more excited the colors get brighter and brighter. When he freaks out the colors are extremely bright but then, as his soul is crushed, everything is grey. The background serves as a color chart and rhythm to the story.

In Leonardo the Terrible Monster Mo used format, text size, and sentence structure to manipulate the audience. The book is the largest size he was allowed to make and the boy Leonardo is incredibly small, though is never referred to as small. There would be no point. Mo explained that he does not like to define a character for the audience. He also controlled how the book is read aloud: at first all the sentences are the same, getting you into a rhythm. Then the amount of words on a page increases. It reads a little bit faster. The words increase some more. It reads even faster. Then comes the page that just says "Sam" and automatically, it reads slower than any other word in the book. Mo pointed out that Sam is "sad" spelled wrong.

The illustrations in Knuffle Bunny are often described as cartoons on top of photographs. Not so Mo tells us. Those photographs of romantic Park Slope, Brooklyn are still illustrations -- he has manipulated them to better represent the emotional truth. The eye erases the "grey of ugliness." A camera does not do that, so in photoshop Mo fixes signs or gets rid of items like trashcans and air conditioning units that detract from the emotional truth of Trixie's neighborhood. The illustrations are more of a collage; but when people describe them as photos with cartoons on them, Mo takes it as a sign of success.

His pet peeve is when people come up to him and say "I've written a funny book about blah blah blah." He finds this rude as you are essentially telling him that he does not know what funny is. Something he would never presume to do to you. He never says "I wrote a funny book about a pigeon." Instead saying, "I wrote a book about a pigeon who wanted to drive a bus." If you laugh, great. If you do not, well, "maybe it is a tragedy. I don't know. It is for the pigeon." He believes writers can not describe how they want their audience to react.
As an author/illustrator Mo tries not to be didactic or have rules but one rule he does have is a "port-of-entry rule." He wants every character that he designs to be able to be reasonably drawn by a five-year-old. He strongly believes that books should not just be read but should also encourage play. That drawing, or any act of creation, is an act of empathy. When you draw a character, even a villain, you have to slow down and empathize with that character. "Ah, he has horns. I wonder what those are like?" He thinks the idea that reading is important should be the beginning of a deeper line of thought.

If he has a skill, Mo said, it is for really bad ideas: writing a book about a naked Mole Rat, having a rat with wings as a lovable star character, teaching potty training with an infestation of rodents. All terrible ideas. "But so horrible that you have to do it, right?"

Hopefully Mo will continue to have bad ideas for many years to come. His recent and upcoming titles include Knuffle Bunny Free: An Unexpected Diversion; City Dog, Country Frog; We Are in a Book! (the "Elephant and Piggie" series); and Time to Sleep, Sheep the Sheep (the "Cat the Cat" series).

Emily Griffin

No comments:

Post a Comment