Mo Willems Interview: The Man Behind Knuffle Bunny Talks Apps, Parenting and His Favorite NYC Spots

Children's Book Author and Illustrator Mo Willems Q&A

Since his Knuffle Bunny series of children's books are clearly set in Brooklyn, we'll always think of Mo Willems as a New Yorker—even if technically he doesn't live here anymore. But many of his most beloved book series, including Pigeon, Elephant and Piggie, and Knuffle, were originally created when he lived in NYC, so he's definitely a local celeb in our book.

For his work as an author and illustrator, Willems has received three Caldecott Honors and two Theodore Seuss Geisel Medals, and he won six Emmys during his stint as a writer on Sesame Street (another iconic NYC work of art). But really, his most impressive credentials are how much kids (and parents) love and relate to his work.

These days, Willems is busier than ever. This weekend, his book Knuffle Bunny comes alive as a stage musical at the Skirball Center. Meanwhile his sassy Pigeon character is starring in his own app: Don't Let the Pigeon Run This App! Despite his insane schedule (remember he's a dad, too), Willems graciously agreed to answer our questions about his work, his family and his favorite things to do in NYC. Turns out he's as sassy as his famous Pigeon.

The most important question first: "Kuh-nuffle" or "Nuffle"?
It depends on how you pronounce it.

Knuffle Bunny seems so true to life. Was it inspired by something that really happened?
Everything in Knuffle Bunny is true except for the parts that I made up.

How does your real-life daughter Trixie like being immortalized in the Knuffle Bunny series?
I suppose I’m naïve, but it never occurred to me that I would be saddling my daughter with being both a real kid and fictional character simultaneously.  Luckily, she handles that disconnect, as she does most things, with great grace and is very sweet to young kids excited about meeting “the REAL Trixie.”

How did the Knuffle Bunny musical come about?
When the Kennedy Center asked if they could make a musical based on Knuffle Bunny, I replied foolishly, “Only if I get to write it and the big aria is sung entirely in gibberish.” Even more foolishly, they said, “Okay.” We spent the next couple of years being foolish together and the result is the musical, which, thanks to the help of many others who actually knew what they were doing, came out pretty well.

Knuffle Bunny Free literally makes me tear up every time I read it. As your own child grows up, what do you miss most about having a really little kid around?
I love hanging out with little kids; their honesty, humor and skewed view of reality is too fun to ignore. However, my child has always been a person to me, rather than a kid stuck at an age. If I think too much about her past or fret too much about her future, I’ll end up missing her present—and that’s where she needs me most.

In addition to writing children's books, you earned an Emmy for your writing on Sesame Street and you're also a visual artist. How do these different disciplines inform each other?
Every experience I’ve ever had comes into my work. Consequently, in order to keep my work fresh, I have to keep experiencing stuff. While it’s easy to dismiss a comparison of TV to books or sculpture as the difference between apples and elephants, they all depend on clarity of story and emotional resonance. Also, they should be fun to look at.

You just released Don’t let the Pigeon Run This App! for the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch. What was it like developing it, and what does it add to the Pigeon experience?
That’s a tricky question. After quite a bit of thought, I came to the conclusion that one great thing about books is how necessary the reader is to them working at all. You have to turn the pages, you have to do the reading; an un-read book is broken. My discomfort with the e-books that I was seeing was they essentially could be turned on and would continue going even if the kid had left the room. With that in mind, I wanted to create a digital experience that was dependent on the operator to function either via storytelling or drawing. My greatest hope is that the application will become a spark for writing and drawing by my audience.

You lived in New York City for two decades before moving to Massachusetts. How did living here inform your work?
New York is an inescapable necessity, populated by optimists who came to town with a purpose, which is simultaneously inspiring and exhausting. I love the work ethic that is bred in NYC, not to mention the people who are shaped by it; I am still working with writers and cartoonists that I started out with 25 years ago. Also, making rent is a great motivator for productivity.

What are your favorite things to do with kids in NYC when you're here?
I take all my friends, kids or not, to the carousel in Prospect Park. It is sublime.

Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Musical plays at the Skirball Center at NYU on Friday, November 25 at 2pm, and Saturday November 26-Sunday, November 27 at 11am and 2pm. Tickets are $15-25.

Download Don't Let the Pigeon Run This App on iTunes for $6.99.

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