Temples and Playgrounds

Previewing the 2007 Texas Book Festival, Nov. 3-4

Temples and Playgrounds

Mo Willems

"Authors are like rock stars," says my son's kindergarten teacher. When I tell her I'll be talking to Mo Willems – book-list-topping and Caldecott-winning author of Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus and Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale – she claps excitedly, like a little girl. I have seen her do this once before: while speaking of Mick Jagger.

"His art is amazing," gushes one of the children's librarians at Faulk Central Library; beside me a total of three librarians doggedly comb the carts lined with recent returns in search of My Friend Is Sad, a title from Willems' Elephant & Piggie series for early readers. Elephant and Piggie don't even make it onto the shelves. "I mean, they're just simple line drawings, but they're so expressive," she continues. We also turn up some of the conceptual board books in the Smidgeon of Pigeon series for the very young, and we squirrel them into my pile, as well.

If you can't find a Mo Willems book – if I didn't clear out your branch, another parent probably did – don't worry. You can draw your own Mo Willems book. Mo Willems wants you to. He'll even show you how during two Sunday sessions of this year's Texas Book Festival.

From his Brooklyn home – setting of the "semiautobiographical" Knuffle Bunny and Knuffle Bunny Too: A Case of Mistaken Identity (Hyperion, $16.99 each; it's "kuh-nuffle," by the way) – Willems explains, "I talk about my books, I encourage children to infringe on my copyright and make their own versions of my stories, and I try to answer as many questions as possible."

In his author reading, Willems predicts "a readers' theatre with some characters from the audience doing one of my books," though he quickly adds, "I have to see the space, unfortunately, to be sure of it."

Later, in the demonstration session Drawing With Mo Willems, "I will teach everybody the practical ways to infringe on my copyright by teaching them how to draw the pigeon. Which is always a lot of fun."

Besides the pigeon, what goes into a Mo Willems book? Willems is reluctant to characterize his own work. "I want my audience to say what the books are about, because everybody comes up with different meanings and different accents on the stories."

Certainly his books are irreverent, with an emphasis on interpretation and a liberal attitude about the relationship between reader and text. "Books aren't temples; they're playgrounds," Willems wrote recently in an article for Scholastic's Parent & Child about the joys of reading books "wrong" aloud. The Elephant & Piggie books, for example, are told entirely through dialogue and meant to be performed. "You've got a bunch of first- or second-graders standing up doing these books as plays," Willems says, "and it's just hilarious."

His deadpan humor helps parents engage with the books, as well. ("Gerald loves cowboys," notes Piggie. "But he is still sad.")

"I'm writing books for everyone," Willems explains. "Since I know that these books will primarily have to be read by adults to children, I have to make sure that my orchestra is happy playing what they're playing. If parents are reading a book that they hate – you know, Happy Princess and the Happiness in Bunny-Pumpkin Land – they aren't going to read it with much verve. And therefore it's not going to come across as well."

Sunday, Nov. 4, 11:30am
Children's Chapter Read Me a Story Tent
Sunday, Nov. 4, 1pm
Children's Demonstration & Activity Tent

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