Mo Willems Has a Message for Parents: He’s Not on Your Side

During the first wave of the pandemic in the winter, Mo Willems’s ‘‘Lunch Doodles’’ series, in which the beloved children’s-book author and illustrator led viewers in endearingly no-frills online drawing sessions, was a lifeline to families desperate to exercise their imaginations during lockdown. (He pitched in again by hosting another doodle session on election night.) That Willems, who is 52, was ready to help during a hard, confusing time was no surprise. His two best-selling series of books — one about the odd couple Elephant and Piggie, the other about the mercurial Pigeon — resonate with the hard, confusing time of early childhood. In their whimsy, slapstick and emotional matter-of-factness, these books have established their creator as sort of a cross between Dr. Seuss and Charles Schulz, with all the responsibility that implies. ‘‘The idea that one of my books would be one of the first that a child reads on their own — that’s incredibly powerful,’’ says Willems, who just published the latest in his Unlimited Squirrels series, ‘‘I Want to Sleep Under the Stars!’’ ‘‘Reading by yourself is the first time you don’t need your parents to do something vital. It’s a liberation.’’

When I was first putting together my questions for you, I realized that a lot of them had to do with things like how we can help kids with the ambient stress of parents’ worrying about the pandemic or politics. But maybe it’s wrong for me to assume that a successful children’s-book author has unique ideas about kids’ emotions. So let me ask you: Do you think you have special insights about kids? Probably the most fundamental insight is that even a good childhood is difficult: You’re powerless; the furniture is not made to your size. But when parents come up to me and ask, ‘‘How do you talk to the kid about the pandemic?’’ they’re asking me to be disloyal. They’re actually asking about a form of control. ‘‘Hey, you have this relationship with kids. Help me control them.’’ [Expletive] you! I’m not on your side. I wish there was a better way to say it. The real answer is: Show that you don’t know. Show them that you’re fumbling. Why wouldn’t you? How do you expect your child to fall and then stand up and say ‘‘That’s OK’’ when you won’t even say, ‘‘I don’t know how to discuss the pandemic with you’’? Are children not allowed to be upset? Does that inconvenience you? You want to protect and prepare them. But I’m not saying it’s easy.

If childhood is difficult, how’s middle age? Don’t send me back to childhood! I communicate better now. I’ve been with the love of my life for a quarter century. I love my kid — my kid is a person! My dream from the time I was probably 7 or 8 was to be 50. That was my goal.

Mo Willems in his Manhattan office in 2000.
Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times

Why would a 7-year-old want to be 50? That was just always my goal. But you have to accept that you are where you are. Like, whatever it is, that’s kind of what it is. It’s probably not going to get a lot better, probably not going to get a lot worse. But, I mean, nobody said to me, ‘‘You’re going to be struggling as an artist for X number of years, and then it’s going to work out.’’ When you’re younger, you wake up and you work. You don’t know if anyone’s even going to see it. You don’t even have a space to do it in. Now I have a drawing table! I press a button, and the light turns on, and I can trace things. I have that accessible to me at any time. I get to dress weird. I get to have long hair. I’m going to get a tattoo. People say, ‘‘How are you going to feel when you’re old and have that thing?’’ I’m already old!

There’s this idea, which is probably a fantasy, that the children’s books we love, like ‘‘Corduroy’’ or Dr. Seuss’, have a net-positive moral effect on the world. What do you think? That line of thinking is a cop-out. That’s the same thing as saying, ‘‘Children are our future.’’ Screw the future. We’re the present. It’s our job to be better human beings. ‘‘I’m going to give my kid something good to read, and maybe later they’ll solve the world’s problems, but excuse me while I get back on my phone’’ — that is frankly offensive. If you want your kid to be a better human, the way to do it is to be a better human. There’s a time in every kid’s life when they’re still drawing every day and playing basketball every day. Then there’s a day when they stop drawing and keep playing basketball. They keep playing basketball because their parents do, and their parents don’t draw. At some point they’re like, ‘‘That can’t be cool because my parents don’t do it.’’ You don’t think you’re cool, but if your kid says, ‘‘Dad, will you play with me?’’ and you say, ‘‘Not now, I’m drawing,’’ that kid is going to start drawing because that’s cool to them.

Willems reading to children in Washington in 2012
Katherine Frey/The Washington Post, via Getty Images

Is embarrassment about unstructured creativity why parents stop drawing? Embarrassment is a learned disease. It can be cured. It’s about willingness to fail. We prescribe so much and say things like, ‘‘Creativity opens you up to brand-new worlds.’’ It doesn’t open anything up to brand-new worlds. You don’t know what it opens you up to. It’s not a line from A to B. It’s a line from A to strawberry pizza. There’s no way that you’re going to sit down and say, ‘‘I’m going to be creative and come up with an angry pigeon.’’ Creativity is, ‘‘I’m going to let the process do what it does, and who knows what will come out.’’ If you have a child, you have a leg up to rediscover that magic. Magic is the wrong word. It’s not magic. It’s gleeful exploration. It’s also hard work. Kids are asking about issues of control and why is the world the way it is. Trix, when he was young, he used to take his toys and set up a store. ‘‘Come to my store.’’ ‘‘Oh, I see you have a wooden pizza. Can I have it?’’ ‘‘No, you cannot.’’ ‘‘Why not?’’ ‘‘That’s a display one. It’s not for sale.’’ That’s a dialogue about power. For 23.5 hours a day, I’m the one telling that kid what he can’t do. For half an hour, he said: ‘‘Come to me. Sit down. Oh, no, you can’t do that.’’

I feel like one of the tough things sometimes for parents of small children is fully giving up being in charge at a given moment. Obviously there is a certain power structure. You don’t want to be their best friend. You’re not their playmate necessarily. But it’s an inviting in. When Trix was losing his teeth, for example, we didn’t have a tooth fairy because that made no sense in relation to the rest of the world. We had a futures market. Trix could say, ‘‘What’s the tooth future?’’ ‘‘Unfortunately, there’s a lot of people dumping teeth lately, so the market is not doing as well.’’ With other kids, when they lose their teeth, I pull their ear and say: ‘‘Your ear is loose, too. Your baby ear might be coming out.’’ Then there’s a whole bunch of thought, and ultimately the kid is on the inside of the joke. Then they’re asking questions like: ‘‘Why is this part of my body falling out and these aren’t? What is that about?’’ The magic should be about discovering.

Willems during one of his ‘‘Lunch Doodles’’ this year.
From the Kennedy Center

Your son is grown up now. Does he still inspire your work? I know he used to. I’m a little frustrated by that as a question because you don’t have a kid to become a children’s writer. But Trix changed my whole life; everything about me. Some of that seeped into my writing more than ‘‘My kid said something adorable and then I wrote about it.’’ I think a lot of it was understanding the power of doodling. My kid had a tough time. It took him a while to realize that he was queer, took him a while to realize he was trans. So there was a lot of drawing at the dining-room table. Perhaps he didn’t have the vocabulary to talk about what was going on or how he felt, but the drawings could express it in some way. Then we could talk around what we were all drawing. Sharing this creative thing was a form of communication. Yeah, I’m not doing a good job answering this. I think what I learned from Trix was more the ability to ask questions and less the need to feel like I had the answers.

Did learning that help you with his transitioning? Yeah. One of the great things about queer kids in this culture is that they have to have done the work. They have to do the questioning and say: ‘‘Who am I? What am I? Where am I in society? What risks am I willing to take or not take to be authentic?’’ There are cis and straight people who do that as well, but it’s not an obligation.

You don’t speak to your own parents. Given that fact and that you’re someone who presumably has thought a fair bit about the connection between kids and parents, have your thoughts about the emotional expectations of the parent-child relationship evolved over time? Do you see your children as living human beings separate from you?

Very much so. Then you’re fine. I’m estranged from my parents. A lot of it is personal. But when I started to see some of the harmful behavior that had happened to me starting to be moved over to my child by them, that was the line. There’s no good that can come out of saying more about it.

I have a couple questions from my 5-year-old, if that’s OK. She’s a fan. First off: Why don’t your books have princesses? Democracy.

And second: Do you ever get poopy on your head? The closest thing for me is an expression called ‘‘arty farty.’’ As a middle-aged cartoonist, I am a living example of arty farty in a very literal way.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity from two conversations.

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