Children’s book author Mo Willems knows his audience. “My basic philosophy,” the Park Sloper told GO Brooklyn, “is that the difference between children and adults is that children are shorter.”
It’s this humor — and spot-on observation — that has made Willems a two-time winner of the Caldecott Honor, the prestigious award for children’s books, and a hit with local kids, a group that is surprisingly picky about its books.
Despite having been in the trade for five years, Willems didn’t start out with being an author in mind. “My first job,” he recalled, “was staying out of trouble.”
After working as a stand-up comedian in London, Willems landed his first job as an animator on the film version of the children’s story “Ira Sleeps Over,” and later wrote scripts for “Sesame Street” — a job that earned him six Emmy awards.
But no matter how great the recognition, Willems claimed he was just the man behind the bird. “You have the advantage that no matter what lines you write, the Muppets will make them funny. I don’t think my scripts were particularly strong, but nobody noticed because the acting was so good.”
His next project, a Cartoon Network show called “Sheep in the Big City,” allowed him more freedom. Not only did he create the show, giving him control over plot, character and format, but he also animated each episode himself. Still, he found himself doing a lot of managing when what he really wanted to do was just draw.
Since the 2003 publication of “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus,” Willems has turned his attention to children’s books, which he writes and illustrates in his Park Slope studio. He says feels most comfortable with his latest incarnation. “I always wanted to draw and be funny, and I was never sure how that would play itself out. I’ve had a myriad of careers on the way, but I think that this is the one I’m having the most fun with.”
And other people have taken notice as well. “His humor is in the illustrations, and kids are very visually oriented now,” said Judy Zuckerman, assistant director of children’s services at the Brooklyn Public Library. “[Kids] like that kind of visual humor, especially with videogames, movies, TV and the internet so much in the culture today.”
In fact, Willems’s ability to both write and illustrate his books, which is unusual in the children’s book industry, enhances his ability to tell a story with little or no words. “There’s no real difference between myself as an author and myself as an illustrator,” he said. “Drawing is a form of writing.” His background in animation also gives his books a special appeal because kids love that his characters look like cartoons.
The style of the “Knuffle Bunny” books, including the soon-to-be released “Knuffle Bunny Too,” is visually arresting and surprisingly artsy. It’s easy to see why critics were so impressed by the black-and-white photographs that Willems colors over with his cartoon characters.
As with everything, the idea came from experimentation: “That was sort of a process of trial and error. I wanted to make the stories feel as real as possible.”
Deciding which objects to draw and which to photograph was also done by trial and error, but Willems ultimately chose to photograph all the backgrounds as well as some of the objects the characters interacted with. A grand artistic statement? Nope — “I hate drawing backgrounds,” the author laughed.
So, while the backgrounds aren’t drawn, they aren’t exactly regular photographs either. “Images based on photos,” is what Willems refers to them as, explaining how he digitally alters the images, taking out air conditioners and other items that ruin the shot. “In a picture book, you would notice graffiti in a way that you wouldn’t if you just walked down the street,” he explained.
However tailored they may be, the photos taken near his home in Park Slope have exposed images of Brooklyn to a large national and global audience, a phenomenon that Zuckerman, the librarian, said will benefit the community. And while kids in other parts of the country reportedly didn’t know what a Laundromat — a featured locale from the first “Knuffle Bunny” book — was, local kids were getting to read about a life they recognized as close to their own. Willems said that his themes are universal, but added, “I’m sure that kids who live in Brooklyn might feel a special connection with it because they feel a special connection with certain landmarks.”
And the “Knuffle Bunny” books are quickly becoming just that.
“Knuffle Bunny Too: A Case of Mistaken Identity” (Hyperion) will be published in September. For information, visit www.mowillems.com.