Author Mo Willems on 'Elephant and Piggie'
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
When animator Mo Willems first wrote children's books, people considered his work unusual, and he couldn't get published. His characters, mostly animals, are outspoken and offbeat. His storylines, well, you never quite know where he's going.
Now, Mo Willems embraces being called unusual, and he has quite a following. Parents and children have fallen for a one-eyed pigeon whose tragic tales involved not being allowed to drive the bus or not being allowed to stay up late. Two new "Elephant and Piggie" books are just out. For Mo Willems, it's all about establishing a relationship.
Mr. MO WILLEMS (Author, "Elephant and Piggie"): My book is a dialogue between my characters and my audience. And so I want it to feel almost improvisational. I want these characters to act as if they're alive. And because they do that, they have to sometimes be somewhat random in their actions.
NORRIS: Do you have one of your books with you?
Mr. WILLEMS: I do. I have a few books.
NORRIS: I have a whole stack myself.
Mr. WILLEMS: Well, do you want to read one with? Because my "Elephant and Piggie" books are really built to be little plays, so I can cast you as a Piggie.
NORRIS: Oh, okay. I love the Piggie.
Mr. WILLEMS: So, the Mo Willems Theater Troop Ensemble Radio Performance Players now present "Elephant and Piggie's I Love My New Toy," starring Michele Norris as Piggie, and I guess, me as the Elephant. The title page, we see a very happy Piggie holding a very eccentric toy, and she yells...
NORRIS: I love my new toy.
Mr. WILLEMS: Elephant enters, as Piggie is hugging, and says...
Hi, Piggie. What are you doing?
NORRIS: Then Piggie on the next page is holding on to that new toy with both hands tight. And then Piggie thrusts the new toy at Elephant, and says...
Look, look at my new toy.
She embraces it again.
I love my new toy.
Mr. WILLEMS: What does it do?
NORRIS: I have no idea.
Mr. WILLEMS: Maybe it is a throwing toy. I love throwing toys.
NORRIS: Piggie has a look on her face. She doesn't know if she likes this.
Here, try it.
Mr. WILLEMS: Yes.
Mr. WILLEMS: And as Elephant's red eyes go brighter and brighter, zip, he throws it very high. And they're both looking up in the sky.
NORRIS: Nice throw.
Mr. WILLEMS: Thanks.
NORRIS: We have to turn the page kind of sideways here.
Mr. WILLEMS: It's zooming down.
Here it comes.
Zoom and break. Both Elephant and Piggie are shocked as the toy has broken in half.
I broke your new toy.
NORRIS: You broke my toy, my new toy. I'm mad and sad.
Mr. WILLEMS: I am sorry.
NORRIS: You are sorry.
Mr. WILLEMS: Very sorry.
NORRIS: I do not care. My new toy is broken and you broke it.
(Soundbite of crying)
Mr. WILLEMS: And in comes a little squirrel.
Cool. You have a break and snap toy.
Snap, puts it together.
That is a fun toy.
Elephant suddenly realizes it's okay.
Out walks the squirrel.
NORRIS: Break. Snap. Do you want to play with my new toy?
Mr. WILLEMS: No.
NORRIS: You do not want to play with my new toy?
Mr. WILLEMS: I do not want to play with your new toy. I want to play with you. Friends are more fun than toys.
And you see the toy in the foreground as they run away in the background.
Mr. WILLEMS: You're it.
Mr. WILLEMS: You're it. No, you are.
Mr. WILLEMS: The end.
And so there we go. The "Elephant and Piggie" books usually have no more than 50 distinct words, because they are easy readers - or as I like to call them, hard writers.
NORRIS: But they're also about emotions, a whole cauldron of emotions that each new situation presents - anger, fear, disappointment. Is it meant to be sort of an instructive for kids? Like it's okay. You're not the only one who feels these emotions.
Mr. WILLEMS: I balk at the word instructive. I want to be real and I want to act in the same way as kids and adults do. I really feel that the difference between kids and adults is that kids are shorter. You know, they live on planet Earth, and they have the same emotions that we do and they react in the same way that we do. So I don't want to preach. That's the last thing that I want to do. I just want to show and let the kids figure out what the books mean for them.
NORRIS: What age group are these books intended for?
Mr. WILLEMS: Anybody who's willing to have fun. Anybody who wants to yell no at a book is old enough or young enough for a Pigeon book. Primarily, they end up being books for kindergarteners of first graders, but I've heard of high schools putting on productions of little Pigeon plays. It really doesn't matter.
NORRIS: Now, you worked for "Sesame Street" for nine years. What did that experience teach you about children as your target audience?
Mr. WILLEMS: It taught me that funny is funny and not to talk down to kids. It also taught me the glory of brevity. You really have to write very short bits. The one thing that kids don't have, the one difference is that they don't have cultural modifiers. If you say the Eiffel Tower, that may not mean anything because they haven't quite experienced these things. So you have to be pure in your comedy, pure in your writing. You can't lean on cultural assumptions, which makes it a one level harder, but it also makes it a lot more exciting.
NORRIS: So Eiffel Tower becomes really tall structure but with interesting shape.
Mr. WILLEMS: Big thing.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. WILLEMS: Yes, that simple.
NORRIS: Big thing in faraway place.
Mr. WILLEMS: You're really carrying it out. Wow, like a big thing, faraway. Like, you have to figure out a way to make that funny.
NORRIS: Well, Mo, thank you very much for coming in to talk to us, and thank you for casting me in your theater group.
Mr. WILLEMS: You did great. It this does not work out for you, I'm sure we can get a second career.
NORRIS: I'll keep my day job. Thanks so much.
Mr. WILLEMS: Thank you.
NORRIS: That's children's author, Mo Willems. His other new book is "I Will Surprise My Friend."
(Soundbite of song, "Baby Elephant Walk")
NORRIS: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.
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