Once upon an unusual time with author Mo Willems

Children's author Mo Willems has something on his mind.
(Marty Umans / HarperCollins)

Mo Willems’ pictures books are notable for their off-beat charm. In one, a pigeon attempts to drive a bus. In another, an elephant discovers the one thing worse than having a bird on your head is having two birds on it. Next month the Massachusetts-based author keeps the laughs coming with “Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs,” in which he substitutes chocolate pudding for porridge and imports a dinosaur from Norway. We caught up with the multiple Caldecott Honor winner to chat about his newest project.

All of the picture books you’ve written and illustrated have been unusually inventive and original. Why did you want to retell a fairy tale?

I really haven’t written a classic picture book, so that’s part of it. I enjoyed the idea of messing around with a form I hadn’t played with. Plus, it’s really fun to do inside jokes. Usually my books are so spare I can’t do the kind of gags like the “We Are Natural Gas” poster [which shows a dinosaur wearing a hard hat].

And then there are the endpapers offering dozens of other Goldilocks spoof ideas, like “Goldilocks and Three Mile Island” — all of them crossed out.


I’m thrilled about the prospect of kids making their own Goldilocks books. That’s part of my philosophy: Books shouldn’t just be read, they should be played, so the endpapers are an opportunity to play. Books are not broccoli. They aren’t written in stone. If you want to mess around with a book, it’s not this temple. It’s a working thing for your own creativity.

Is there any rhyme or reason to the animals that are the center of your stories?

Some of the animals I choose because they can be mine. Nobody else is going to write about a pigeon or a naked mole rat. There’s no cultural or historical baggage, so that’s fun. If an idea is bad enough, I have to do it. Knuffle Bunny is a bunny, but it isn’t anthropomorphic. It’s a stuffed animal. If I wrote a children’s book about a bunny, you’ve got Beatrix Potter and all this history of what a bunny means, and that’s hard to escape. So when you write about a naked mole rat, nobody’s going to say, “That’s just like that 19th century naked mole rat book.”

What else can we expect from you before the year is out?


An activity book called “Don’t Let the Pigeon Finish This Activity Book.” As opposed to mazes, there are events. You learn how to draw the pigeon, make your own pigeon book, have a signing. Every activity builds to a larger event.