Mo Willems: 'I Want My Books To Be Played' The author of such beloved children's book characters as the Pigeon, Elephant and Piggie explains why he writes for people "who have not yet learned how to be embarrassed."

Mo Willems: 'I Want My Books To Be Played'

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You're listing to ASK ME ANOTHER from NPR and WNYC. I'm Ophira Eisenberg, and with me is our one-man house band Jonathan Coulton, our puzzle guru John Chaneski, and let's welcome our very important puzzler, author of "Don't Let The Pigeon Drive The Bus" and the "Elephant And Piggie" series, plus so much more. It's Mo Willems.


MO WILLEMS: All right. Thank you. Thank you. Wow.

EISENBERG: So nice to have you. Someone was yelling out Knuffle Bunny. That is the right pronunciation. Is that right?

WILLEMS: Well, it all depends on how you pronounce it.


EISENBERG: Yes it does.

WILLEMS: I say k-nuffle (ph) because I'm right.

EISENBERG: (Laughter) Yes.

WILLEMS: It's a Dutch word that means hug or snuggle. And it's pronounced k-nuffle (ph), but I misspelled it.

EISENBERG: I'm half Dutch.

WILLEMS: Are you really?


WILLEMS: Which half?

EISENBERG: My mother.

WILLEMS: Oh, fabulous.

EISENBERG: From Nijmegen.

WILLEMS: From Nijmegen? My father's from Nijmegen.


WILLEMS: Yeah. My father's from Nijmegen. My...

EISENBERG: Nijmegen's not very big.

WILLEMS: No. That's why people leave.


EISENBERG: Do you know the Dutch phrase - I'm probably pronouncing it terribly, but I love it. My mother has used this on me - klap van der molen.

WILLEMS: Poo-poo in your mill?


WILLEMS: Or else you're pronouncing it very poorly.

EISENBERG: OK, so klap - it's hit..

WILLEMS: Klap - yeah, klap. Yeah, OK.

EISENBERG: Hit by the windmill.


EISENBERG: And it just describes someone who's just dumb.

WILLEMS: Right. Yeah.

EISENBERG: That they've been hit by the windmill.

WILLEMS: Klap van der molen. Klap van der molen. OK. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah.

EISENBERG: Klap van der molen. We have other things in common. You used to do stand-up.

WILLEMS: Yes, which I started in high school...

EISENBERG: Oh, no way.

WILLEMS: ...Because I knew that a stand-up club was the only place that I could go and know that people wouldn't laugh at me.


EISENBERG: That is so true. That is so true.

WILLEMS: So started in high school, and then I moved to London. Then I moved to New York. And I did it for a little while.

EISENBERG: What was your act like?

WILLEMS: Bad. It was - I was in a duo for a long time, not unlike Elephant and Piggie, and we would do things like a sketch about the guy who announces the subway trains coming home, and his wife is the lady who announces the stuff at the airports.

EISENBERG: Well, that's sweet. I like that.

WILLEMS: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. That's why I write books.

EISENBERG: I like that lot. So what is the secret to writing kids' books that also appeal to adults? How do you balance those two audiences?

WILLEMS: I don't see them as two audiences. I see them as one. I think the difference between adults and kids are that kids are shorter. They're not stupider, you know?


WILLEMS: So I am writing for people who have not learned how to be embarrassed yet - right? - because embarrassment is a learned behavior.

EISENBERG: Shame. Pre-shame. Wow.

WILLEMS: Right, and, you know, teenagers - millions of teenagers - are dying of embarrassment every day. It's...

EISENBERG: It's pretty good.

WILLEMS: But adults - adults, parents, when they start reading to their kids, they get to not be embarrassed anymore. It's an opportunity to be silly and to have fun. But I'm being a philosopher. I think that the age of 5 is the most philosophical age you can be. You're useless.


EISENBERG: You're not paying rent.

WILLEMS: You're not paying rent. But you're asking questions like, why are people mean? What is death? Can I drive a bus? You know these...


WILLEMS: The core Greek fundamental, existential questions. So every book to me, honestly, is a question I don't know the answer to. I figure if it's a good question, then it's a universal question.


WILLEMS: I don't want my books to be read, necessarily. I want them to be played. The idea's that you're engendering creativity because reading is great. But it is ultimately a form of consumption. What I want is after I read the book, for a kid to say, like, I got an idea. You know, and they come and - don't let the pigeon operate the catapult. Don't let the pigeon audit my neighbor. You know, like, these really great books. And then they go out, and they infringe on my copyright, and they make their own stories. And that's awesome. That's what I'm trying to engender.

EISENBERG: It is like a game.


>>EISENBERG It's like a game. You're creating a game. Incredible - I am so psyched to have you not only play a game on our show, but you are going to help us with a game right now.

WILLEMS: Excellent.

EISENBERG: Mo Willems, everybody.


WILLEMS: Thank you. Thank you. All right.

EISENBERG: And our next contestant is on the line. Hi, you're on ASK ME ANOTHER.

MATT SCHNEIDER: Hi, this is Matt Schneider in St. Paul, Minn.

EISENBERG: Hello, Matt. Matt, you work in a elementary school as a...

SCHNEIDER: As a school librarian. I teach kids.

EISENBERG: A school librarian.

WILLEMS: As a librarian? Well, thank you for what you do. That's awesome.

EISENBERG: This is Mo Willems. Are you familiar with Mo's - all of his books?

SCHNEIDER: Not all of them. There's too many, but I have favorites.

EISENBERG: Nice, that's a good answer. What is one of your favorites?

SCHNEIDER: "Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed" - absolute favorite.


WILLEMS: Thank you. Thank you very much.

EISENBERG: So we love all of the books, but we are going to talk about the "Elephant And Piggie" books - all 28 million of them. We love them because they have such enthusiastic titles. And, Matt, you're going to play a very special VIP round of an ASK ME ANOTHER classic called This, That Or The Other. Today's categories are "Elephant And Piggie" book titles, famous lines from "Seinfeld," or just something we made up. Mo is going to read you some sentences, and you have to tell us is it an "Elephant And Piggie" title, a "Seinfeld" line or did we just make it up. OK?


EISENBERG: All right. Good luck. Take it away, Mo.

WILLEMS: Here's number one. Stop jumping on my bed.

SCHNEIDER: I think that sounds like it could be a "Seinfeld" line. I'm not as good at "Seinfeld" as I should be, but I'm going to say "Seinfeld."



EISENBERG: That's OK. I'm glad you said "Seinfeld." It's fake. We made it up. I know that you're basically saying it's not an "Elephant And Piggie" book, but it sounds - the way Mo delivered it - sounded impressive and kind of like George Costanza freaking out.

WILLEMS: Oh, thank you very much.

SCHNEIDER: I thought they could be, like, a reason why some relationship didn't work out.


EISENBERG: Because they were jumping on the bed.

WILLEMS: Elephant and Piggie are just friends.


EISENBERG: Let's try the next one.

WILLEMS: Can you spare a square?

SCHNEIDER: OK, I know this one. It is a "Seinfeld" line.

EISENBERG: Yes, exactly. Well done.


EISENBERG: In finesse (ph) doing great.

WILLEMS: "We Are In A Book."

SCHNEIDER: Definitely an "Elephant And Piggie," my favorite.


WILLEMS: Thank you.

EISENBERG: That is your favorite? Why is it your favorite, Matt?

SCHNEIDER: It's meta. It's - like you said, it's an experience, right? Because they're in a book. It's crazy.




JONATHAN COULTON, BYLINE: You just blew my mind.

SCHNEIDER: That's right.

EISENBERG: And this is a rumination on endings and beginnings or...

WILLEMS: Yes, it's my - I mean, it's my kiddie death book.

EISENBERG: I was going to let you say it, OK.

WILLEMS: Actually, it is a lot about being in a book in the text and understanding and all that stuff. But it is also about endings. I feel that we're very afraid of ending stuff. You know, I did three "Knuffle Bunny" books, and people were like well, why does it have to end? Because things end.


EISENBERG: That's right. No, I am totally with you.

WILLEMS: All right, here's our last one - "Listen To My Trumpet!"

SCHNEIDER: That is "Elephant And Piggie."


EISENBERG: Yes. Matt, you did great. You won, so we are sending you a limited edition ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cube. And, Mo, we will see you later for your own challenge. Thank you very much to Matt.

WILLEMS: Thank you guys.

SCHNEIDER: Thank you.

EISENBERG: Thank you to Mo Willems, everybody.


EISENBERG: If you spend your days on the couch watching "Seinfeld" reruns, guess what? You can be a phone contestant on our show. Just hit the mute button and email us at and we'll send you a contestant quiz.


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