Mo Willems is serious about silliness. Anyone who’s read his much-loved books knows that. But the awarding-winning author-illustrator of There Is a Bird on Your Head! and Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! is after more than kid giggles. He wants adults to climb aboard too.
Maurice “Mo” Charles Willems was born in 1968. His interest in cartooning began early. “My desire as a kid was to find a way to be funny and draw,” he told an interviewer for Animation World.
But even as a four-year-old, Mo didn’t want fake praise. Cartoons allowed him to measure honest responses to his drawing and writing. After all, he knew people couldn’t fake laughter.
“I started out by drawing Snoopy and Charlie Brown and then started to make up my own characters,” says the three-time Caldecott Honor winner. “No one has made me stop yet!”
After college, Willems began working at the Sesame Street Workshop. In his nine years there, he won six Emmy Awards for video shorts about the alphabet, a character named Susie Kabloozie, and other kid-friendly subjects.
Willems eventually left Sesame Street to write. His breakout book was Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! in 2002. He has written and/or illustrated over 60 children’s books since.
He credits Charles Schulz and Peanuts for his simple artistic style. “Charlie Brown is a circle and his nose is a letter C,” Willems says. “All of my characters are designed to be easy enough to copy, so that a five-year-old could go out and make stories with my characters.”
With the sparkle of Dr. Seuss and the compassion of Mister Rogers, Willems describes himself as “on the kids’ side.” Valuing children and young people is a trait Jesus encouraged when He said, “Let the little children come to me” (Matthew 19:14) and, through the Apostle Paul, “Let no one despise you for your youth.” (1 Timothy 4:12)
In 2019, Willems became the Kennedy Center’s first-ever Education Artist-in-Residence. This year, the center’s in-person activities ceased during the coronavirus pandemic. Willems quickly invited viewers to draw with him online. For two weeks, his “LUNCH DOODLES” segment entertained quarantined kids.
Willems also works with the Kennedy Center orchestra and has coordinated a tribute to reading called Mo Willems & the Storytime All-Stars Present: Don’t Let the Pigeon Do Storytime!
Willems laments that “a lot of grown-ups have lost their ability to be silly.” His storytime project encourages adults to embrace creativity and inspire children close to them to do likewise.
“It is a privilege to get to work,” Willems says, “and I don’t want to waste that privilege.”