RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Mo Willems is an acclaimed children's author whose characters have engaged a generation of kids. He's won all kinds of awards, had bestsellers. He is at the top of his game, but even Mo Willems can suffer a touch of irrational imposter syndrome. When the Kennedy Center came calling and asked if he'd like to be their first-ever education artist in residence, he said, yes, of course, but he was also a bit freaked out.
MO WILLEMS: What it means is I get to be really, really terrified in all kinds of new, different ways.
MARTIN: One of the challenges was to take one of his most beloved characters, Pigeon, from the page to the stage in the form of a musical. We visited Willems and some of the cast during the first rehearsals for "Don't Let The Pigeon Drive The Bus! (The Musical)."
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (Singing) Maybe I would feel aliver (ph) if I could be like that driver.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (Singing) I love being...
UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (Singing) The bus driver.
MARTIN: The show, based on his popular "Pigeon" series, will hit the Kennedy Center later this year. In the meantime, Mo Willems has a new "Pigeon" book out today. It's called "The Pigeon HAS To Go To School!"
Mo Willems is a creative mind in the truest sense. He sees wonder and poignancy in the most simple of things, and he can turn them into stories for kids about big philosophical questions, which is why he told me he'd leapt at the chance to collaborate at the Kennedy Center.
WILLEMS: There are all these sandboxes that I don't usually get to play in - you know, the National Symphony Orchestra or jazz with Jason Moran or various other forms. And so for me, it's kind of like going to second grade. Like, I have some basic literacy skills in what I do, but I really don't know what I'm doing. And I get to be in all of these rooms - these collaborative rooms with people who understand their mediums. And I think I understand my characters, and we get to just sort of make new stuff.
MARTIN: So as part of this - like you say, you get to just play in all kinds of different sandboxes, but some of the toys are the same. Can I draw this metaphor? Like, you get to use your characters - your well-beloved...
WILLEMS: I get to play with my characters.
WILLEMS: Almost all of the projects are based on seeing my characters do something different - so be in a play or be in a piece of music or be in a piece of dance. And for me, really, the kind of guiding light for what I'm trying to accomplish - there are two things. What I'm trying to accomplish for myself is just terrify myself, which I'm doing pretty well. And what I'm trying to accomplish for the audience is this idea that, you know, we constantly hear how children are the future, but we seldom say, hey, we're the present. And it's incumbent on us to be present. So if you really want your kid to be artistic, to draw and be empathetic and to be musical, you have to do those things.
WILLEMS: You have to be sitting there drawing. You have to be modeling this stuff.
MARTIN: You can't assume that they're just going to get it. If you tell them it's important to have in their life, you...
WILLEMS: You're a liar.
MARTIN: You have to do the thing.
WILLEMS: You're a liar if you don't do it. You know, drawing is physicalized empathy. When you're drawing a character, you're thinking about who that character is. You're empathizing with that character. And so if you're telling a child to do that and you don't do that, they can smell it. They smell that you're lying.
MARTIN: They do. But they can, can't they? Who did you first empathize with through drawing - who or what?
WILLEMS: You know, for me, the touchstone is always going to be "Peanuts" and Charlie Brown and Snoopy because Charlie Brown was easy to draw, and his life was worse than mine. Like, it was terrible. And you could just sit there and just watch him go through misery. I think the worst thing you could've done to Charlie Brown was to say that your life is in four panels. And while you think it's a tragedy, everyone in the world is laughing at you.
And the Pigeon is the same. I mean, the Pigeon - if you were to tell the Pigeon that his books were funny, oh, you would break his little molty (ph) heart (laughter).
MARTIN: Can you - for people who don't know Pigeon, can you just explain him?
WILLEMS: Oh, the Pigeon has wants and needs and desires, and he has very few filters. He wants what he wants. He thinks he needs what he needs. He is railing at the unjustice (ph) of it all.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (Singing) My hopes are thwarted. I'm broken-hearted, and I'm only starting to see what is true. It's so very much that I'm never due...
MARTIN: Well, amidst all these new projects, you've given Pigeon another chapter. I mean, you...
WILLEMS: I have. I didn't think I was going to write another "Pigeon" book ever, really. He hates it when I don't make books about him, and that's why the Pigeon...
MARTIN: Is he a little bit narcissistic, Pigeon?
WILLEMS: Oh, he's terrible. He's terrible character.
MARTIN: He gets jealous. So...
WILLEMS: He is jealous.
MARTIN: So you paid attention to him again.
WILLEMS: Well, you know, I try to think that the Pigeon is a core, fundamental, philosophical being. He is asking the fundamental deep questions. And I usually look at my books from questions that I have - philosophical questions that I don't have the answer to. So for me, the last couple years have just - in terms of the news and the culture - have been - there's been all this uncertainty.
WILLEMS: You know, every day, you wake up, and you really don't know what's going to happen next. And I started to realize that that is not unlike having to go to school. There's this whole new paradigm that you are ill-prepared for. And the - that has to bring up certain emotions and fears and passions. So I put him in that situation. And unlike the other books, he has no choice here. He has to live that uncertainty.
WILLEMS: So it is "The Pigeon HAS To Go To School!"
MARTIN: Why do you want to do this for a living?
WILLEMS: I'm terrible at so many things (laughter).
MARTIN: I don't believe you for some reason.
WILLEMS: It's ultimately reductive.
MARTIN: You could have done other things, though, that are similar. You definitely explored comedy.
MARTIN: You were a writer for "Sesame Street." You could've gone into multimedia or television. What is it about the act of writing...
WILLEMS: Well, books are sculptures.
WILLEMS: Books are sculptures, and they're incredibly intimate. I am lucky enough to have written books that may be the first book that a child has read on their own, which is an incredible empowerment, you know?
MARTIN: Do you ever run out of ideas?
WILLEMS: Oh - I mean, do I have a special wall that I bang my head against? Yes.
MARTIN: That's what happens.
WILLEMS: I do. Yeah. But I feel fortunate to love my work and to be a neurotic.
MARTIN: How does your neuroses help?
WILLEMS: Well, because they bring up questions. I'm - you're never going to run out of questions about how to be who you want to be, how to be the best you, how to be kinder or to understand more. I mean, we live in such a complex yet beautiful world, and it's such a gift that - to be able to feel around all the edges of that, it certainly takes a lifetime.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MARTIN: Mo Willems - his new book is called "The Pigeon HAS To Go To School!"
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