Mo Willems, author/illustrator of:
Mo Willems’ work in children’s books, animation, television, theater, and bubble gum card painting has garnered him 3 Caldecott Honors, 2 Geisel Medals, 2 Carnegie Medals, 6 Emmys, and multiple bubble gum cards. Upcoming non-bubble gum card projects include Hooray for Amanda and Her Alligator, a portrait of the relationship between a girl and her stuffed alligator told in 6-1/2 stories. More information about Mo’s past, present, and future can be gleamed at www.mowillems.com. Mo will be part of an incredible panel on Sunday January 30th, "Look Who's Laughing: How To Do Funny For Young Readers and Why" that's sure to have us all cracking up... and thinking!
I'm excited to learn and be inspired by Mo at the conference, and thrilled that he agreed to answer a few pre-conference questions!
Lee: Hi Mo! Thanks so much for taking the time out to talk. Let's jump right in. Do you think humor in writing and illustrating is a craft that can be honed and improved, or is being funny an innate "talent" that you either have or don't have?
Mo: The word “Talent” derives from the Lower-Swabian for “worked harder than the others”.
Lee: Ha! As a writer and illustrator, you straddle both sides of the creative divide... do you think there are lessons from "thinking like an illustrator" that even stick-figure-drawing writers like myself might learn?
Mo: Creating picture books is a form of architecture constructed by page turns and the interrelationship between word and image. How can you tell if a drawing makes a word irrelevant (or vice-versa) without trying it out first?* Think of it as constructing a model of your building. If you don’t bother to do that, I suspect you’ll be stuck trying to cover over the cracks in its foundation with a veneer of superfluous words.
*Ex: I illustrated City Dog, Country Frog for myself before I gave Jon Muth the (greatly reduced and improved) manuscript. I simply never showed it to him or anyone else.
Lee: You've published picture books and easy readers, board books, short stories, even an illustrated memoir... and been amazing at it all! Do you feel it's important to get "established" writing and/or illustrating for one age bracket/category before branching out - in terms of building a "brand," or is that not something we merely human types should worry about?
Mo: “Branding” is what you do to cattle. Being true to your sensibility and open to new challenges is what you do to build a career. I trust my audience will allow me to follow my evolving interests if I continue to give them my best efforts when I do.
Also, there is a distinct advantage in fearing neither work nor failure.
Lee: What's the best piece of advice you've gotten in terms of writing and illustrating for children?
Mo: I have 3 that I’ve culled from the years:
1. Never fall in love with a drawing (this applies doubly so to words).
2. An assignment: either describe the descent of a single raindrop in 5,000 drawings (or words) or describe the sack of Byzantium in three.
3. Buy an electric pencil sharpener. Use it.
Lee: New York's pretty cold in the winter, but the SCBWI conference is always piping hot with community and inspiration. Any pointers on getting the most out of attending a SCBWI conference?
Mo: Have a great time, enjoy NYC and all it has to offer, get jazzed by all of the frenetic passion of those around you, but please don’t ask writers and illustrators how to get published. It’s like asking a beverage truck driver the secret formula for Coke. Our uninformed answers will have no value to you. But more importantly, all of the practical aspects of our work (bending from the knees, parallel parking, and gear shifting) is so much more interesting.
Wow! Thanks so much, Mo. I learned a lot, and already feel (gosh, I've said it three times in this interview!) inspired.
If you want to get to hear Mo in person and partake of all the fabulousness of the SCBWI Winter Conference, come join us!
And remember to bookmark and/or follow the Official SCBWI Conference Blog, authored by myself and the rest of the remarkable SCBWI Team Blog. We're Jaime Temairik, Jolie Stekley, Martha Brockenbrough, Suzanne Young and me, and we're led by Alice Pope, who writes the indispensible Alice Pope's SCBWI Children's Market Blog!