Mo Willems: The Opportunity to Learn More About Pigeon, Elephant, Piggie and Knuffle Bunny, Among Others: A Q&A Session

We are sitting on the floor.  We were lucky to get in at all.  The line for Mo stretched around the corners and up and down stairways.  Thunderous applause for Mo.  We can’t take any pictures – so we will not.  We can ask him anything we want: What your going to read is  our interpretation of the Q&A.

What did he gain from his year in France?

He spent a year in France, sketching, and limited access to him for business.  Business was only on Tuesdays.  He spent a year walking and sketching, the same amount of work but a whole lot less stress.  There was not balance from the “reactive” and “fed”.  My take away – our society has a lot of “have to” but not enough being “fed” self nurturing.

Will you ever get back to New Orleans?

Mo was from New Orleans.  There is a rich background of storytelling – that is fused by a lot of living.

Teachers who made a difference in your life and why?

One terrible teacher: an art teacher who threw away all his cartoons. Only gave him pastels for still life – you can do real damage.  This is a real job you have.

Best teacher: 7th and 8th grade history and Latin teacher.  She made sure there was context.  The dates were less important than the story.  We had to read the New Orleans Sunday Times, stressed the need to have a strong general knowledge.

Where do you get the inspiration to write Piggie & Elephant?

So funny – he is just very funny.  Early readers are harder than picture books.  There should be 50 distinct words.  The characters have been developed over a long period of time. His publisher was not completely on board – but he felt very strongly about them (Elephant Piggie) because he knew them so well.  The creative process is like a garden – and every once and while a tree bears fruit. Very important that they not be leveled – because he didn’t want to be limited – he wants kids to always think they’re cool.

As a writer what advice would you give your younger writer self?

It’s the same you have to love it and don’t be afraid to rewrite it.  Play around have time to sketch. It’s like you’re going out with characters.

His first chapter book came out Tuesday.  My Time In Paris.  It’s got to feel right.

What’s your favorite book?

Books are like your children – I love all my books equally.

Someone asked Mo to read a section of his new book.  He said no because he didn’t want to sway how we would read it.  So funny because when we were chatting with our subway colleagues, a  Literacy Coach said that she heard him read a Pigeon book and was so disappointed that he sounded so different than when she read it.  She wondered if she was reading it wrong.  But that’s the beauty of Mo’s books he lets the reader into the character.   It’s a place where kids can find there voice.

What’s a message for our students?

He doesn’t want to tell the children anything – but they should all write him a check! My books are meant to be played. Drawing is a physical entity for empathy.  There comes a day when children realize that they are not going to be professional illustrators.  Then they stop drawing.  He talked about family time around drawing, about emotions that come out through drawing.  So powerful.  The stories are meant to be conduits for children and self expression.  The Magic Point is where the characters take off and go into other stories written by children.

He hated Walt Disney because all the characters were so happy. He was not always happy as a kid – that’s why he identified with Charley Brown (finally someone had it worse).

Everyone has a name for a very specific reason Elephant’s name is for his favorite singer Elephant is Gerald.  Piggie is so pure she doesn’t need a name a platonic state of piggyness.

EMPATHY – when he went to France he had to learn so many unwritten rules.  Children are new and short – so think about that negotiating that reality.  Learn how to love an ordinary dog – the squirrel can disappear (it ran up a tree). Empathy is growth.  He is thanking us for our obvious passion.  We are on the front lines – this is true.  Thank you Mo.  His wife wrote the line “Trixi went boneless”.

What adult books inspire you?

Reads mostly nonfiction, philosophy,   Rome, Genghis Khan (meritocracy and old age).   Loss of memory – literate societies suffer a loss of memory. Genghis focused on storytelling that interests Mo.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both.  I never want to be the smartest person in the room – if you’re the smartest person in the room you’re in the wrong room.

Storyboards – draw a drop of rain falling over and over – or Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. is what writing can be .  Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs –  Norway is funny that’s why.

Our Take:

We are going to use this experience to inform our writing celebration for the Narrative UoS with a Q&A between classrooms.  We work so hard to have students respond to professional author’s writing and their peer’s writing.  How often do we ask them to reflect on their own writing in a deep meaningful way? In a meaningful way that is shared in a more public way going beyond their classroom peers.    Not often. The plan is to have each student setup a gallery; then, break up the other classroom into groups of four and do an impromptu Q&A.  We will let you know how it goes.


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