Mo Willems Biography
Personal, Addresses, Career, Honors Awards, Writings, Work in Progress, Sidelights
Male; Education: New York University, B.F.A.
Agent—c/o Author Mail, Hyperion Books for Children, 114 Fifth Ave., 14th Fl., New York, NY 10011.
Animator and illustrator. Researcher for Children's Television Workshop; script writer and animator, Sesame Street, PBS, 1994-2002; creator and director of animated series The Off-Beats, Nickelodeon, 1995-98; creator and director of animated series Sheep in the Big City, Cartoon Network, 2000-02; head writer of animated series Codename: Kids Next Door, Cartoon Network, 2002—. Short films have appeared on MTV, HBO, IFC, Tournee of Animation, and Spike and Mike's Festival of Animation. Commentator for BBC Radio, 1994-97. Member of Monkeysuit (comix collective). New York, NY.
ASIFA-East Awards for animation; six Emmy Awards for work on Sesame Street; National Parenting Publications Award, 2003, for Time to Pee!; Caldecott Honor Book citation, American Library Association, 2004, for Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!
Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!, Hyperion (New York, NY), 2003.
Time to Pee!, Hyperion (New York, NY), 2003.
The Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog!, Hyperion (New York, NY), 2004.
Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale, Hyperion (New York, NY), 2004.
Contributor to books, including Monkeysuit, Monkey-suit Press; Cartoon Cartoons, DC Comics; and 9-11: The World's Finest Comic Book Writers and Artists Tell Stories to Remember, DC Comics, 2002.
Work in Progress
Time to Say Please!, a sequel to Time to Pee!; Leonardo, the Terrible Monster; board books about Pigeon; a feature-length animated film based on Codename: Kids Next Door.
Mo Willems is an Emmy Award-winning television writer, animator, and author. Willems, who spent nine years as a writer and animator for Sesame Street, is the creator of more than 100 short films, many of which have appeared on MTV, HBO, the Tournee of Animation, and Spike and Mike's Festival of Animation. He is the creator of the animated television series Sheep in the Big City and The Off-Beats, and he serves as the head writer for the Cartoon Network's Codename: Kids Next Door. Willems is also the author of a number of picture books, including the Caldecott Honor Book Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!, The Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog!, and Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale.
Willems' interest in cartooning began as a child. "I've been drawing funny cartoons my whole life," he noted on his Web site. "I started out by drawing Snoopy and Charlie Brown and then started to make up my own characters. Luckily, no one has made me stop yet!" Willems decided on a career in animation during the 1980s, while studying at New York University. "My desire as a kid was to find a way to be funny and draw," he explained to Martin Goodman in an interview for Animation World. "Animation turned out to be the best way for me to do that."
Willems made what he considers his first "watchable" film, The Man Who Yelled, while a student at New York University. "That was my calling card for many years," he admitted to Goodman. "It got into a couple of festivals, got shown around, and that's how I found other work." A stipend from the founders of Spike and Mike's Festival of Animation allowed the filmmakers to create Iddy Biddy Beat Boy, another acclaimed short film. Willems eventually landed a job in the research department at the Children's Television Workshop, where he was eventually hired as an animator for Sesame Street. Willems told Goodman that it was a "great fit because the kind of films I wanted to make were very close to the kind of films they wanted to air. I really felt that I was making personal work, even though I was teaching the 'letter of the day' or something like that." Willems worked for Sesame Street from 1994 to 2002, during which time he garnered six Emmy Awards.
In 1995 Willems began producing The Off-Beats, a series of animated shorts about Betty-Anne Bongo and her unusual friends, for Nickelodeon. The success of that series led to Sheep in the Big City, which debuted on the Cartoon Network in 2000. Variety reviewer Stuart Levine described Sheep in the Big City as "an amusing tale of a shy but determined woolly creature on the lam … after government bad guys try to kidnap and use him as a critical component of a high-powered weapon." After the series was canceled in 2002, Willems was contacted by Tom Warburton, who asked him to write for Codename: Kids Next Door. The series follows the adventures of five ten-year-old agents who battle the forces of adulthood. In 2003 Codename: Kids Next Door became the highest-rated show on the Cartoon Network.
Willems' first picture book, Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!, was published in 2003. "The premise of this cheeky debut is charmingly absurd," wrote a contributor to Publishers Weekly. A bus driver steps out of his vehicle for a short break, asking that the reader keep an eye on things while he is gone. Before he leaves, the driver makes one special request: "Don't let the pigeon drive the bus." A big-eyed pigeon soon appears and tries to negotiate a spot behind the wheel, at various points telling the reader, "I'll be your best friend" and "I'll bet your mom would let me." Finally the pigeon throws a huge but futile tantrum as the driver returns, thanks the reader, and pulls away. The pigeon's disappointment is only temporary, though, as he spots a tractor-trailer coming up the road. "Willems hooks his audience quickly with the pigeon-to-reader approach and minimalist cartoons," noted the Publishers Weekly critic. Gillian Engberg, reviewing Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! for Booklist, remarked that "each page has the feel of a perfectly frozen frame of cartoon foot-age—action, remarkable expression, and wild humor captured with just a few lines."
The cantankerous bird makes a return appearance in The Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog! In this work the pigeon spies a discarded hot dog and swoops in for a meal. Just as he is about to devour the treat, a tiny duckling scoots in and makes a number of seemingly innocent but calculated inquiries about the hot dog. According to Horn Book reviewer Kitty Flynn, "The hot-headed pigeon humorously wrestles with a minor moral dilemma (to share or not to share) that will immediately resonate" with young readers. Though the pigeon is wise to the duckling's game, the pesky fowl's incessant questions eventually wear down his resistance, and the pair end up sharing the snack. Willems' "deceptively simple cartoon drawings convincingly portray his protagonist's emotional dilemma," observed Robin L. Gibson in School Library Journal. A Publishers Weekly reviewer found that the author/illustrator's design work adds much to the tale, stating that his use of "voice bubbles, body language, and expressive sizes and shapes of type … crafts a comical give-and-take between the characters."
"More pep rally than how-to," Willems' 2003 work Time to Pee! "is perfectly attuned to preschoolers' sensibilities and funny bones," wrote Kitty Flynn in Horn Book. Time to Pee! features a band of cheerful mice who give advice and encouragement to youngsters still involved in potty training. Critics found much to like in the work. A Publishers Weekly contributor stated that Willems "infuses this potty training manual with saucy wit," and Booklist reviewer Jennifer Matson noted that the author "demonstrates a genius for spare but expressive lines and an almost uncanny rapport with the pre-school audience."
A toddler loses her prized possession in Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale, which Horn Book contributor Flynn wrote "will immediately register with even pre-verbal listeners." In Willems' quaint tale, little Trixie and her dad take a trip to the local Laundromat, but on the way home Trixie notices that her beloved stuffed toy, Knuffle Bunny, has been left behind. Her frantic attempts to communicate—"Aggle flaggle klabble!"—are misinterpreted by her clueless father, so Trixie adopts a new strategy: she cries and goes "boneless." Only after the pair arrive home, however, and Trixie's mom questions the disappearance of the stuffed rabbit does Daddy realize his mistake. A critic in Kirkus Reviews deemed Willems "a master of body language; Trixie's despair and her daddy's frazzlement [are] as expressive as her joy … and his triumph" in rescuing the toy bunny. Flynn praised the book's "playful illustrations" featuring cartoon characters "rendered in Willems's expressive retro style" and set against sepia-toned photographs of Brooklyn neighborhoods. The author/illustrator's "economical storytelling and deft skill with line lend the book its distinctive charm," wrote a contributor in Publishers Weekly.
Critics often make note of Willems' minimalist graphic style, which pleases the animator. As he told Goodman, "While I enjoy all forms of drawing, a single line, simply done, is more beautiful than a hundred little lines sort of approximating the same thing. I like my characters to be two-dimensional. Just because you can do something in 3-D doesn't make it better. I want my line to be focused, so the emotions of a character are clear."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Animation World, September, 1997, Arlene Sherman and Abby Terkuhle, interview with Willems; June 25, 2001, Martin Goodman, "Talking in His Sheep: A Conversation with Mo Willems."
Booklist, September 1, 2003, Gillian Engberg, review of Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!, p. 123; November 1, 2003, Jennifer Matson, review of Time to Pee!, p. 499; January 1, 2004, review of Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!, p. 782; February 15, 2004, Gillian Engberg, review of The Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog!, p. 1064.
Entertainment Weekly, October 3, 2003, review of Time to Pee!, p. 74.
Horn Book, January-February, 2004, Kitty Flynn, review of Time to Pee!, p. 75; May-June, 2004, Kitty Flynn, review of The Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog!, p. 323; September-October, 2004, Kitty Flynn, review of Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale, pp. 576-577.
Kirkus Reviews, April 1, 2003, review of Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!, p. 542; October 1, 2003, Time to Pee!, p. 1233; April 1, 2004, review of The Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog!, p. 339; August 1, 2004, review of Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale, p. 750.
New York Times, April 16, 2000, Peter Marks, "Now Mom and Dad Are Going Cartoon-Crazy, Too."
New York Times Book Review, May 16, 2004, Claire Dederer, review of The Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog!
Publishers Weekly, February 10, 2003, review of Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!, p. 184; December 15, 2003, review of Time to Pee!, p. 71; April 5, 2004, review of The Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog!, p. 60; June 10, 2004, Nathalie op de Beeck, interview with Willems; August 16, 2004, review of Knuffle Bunny, p. 62.
School Library Journal, May, 2003, Dona Ratterree, review of Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!, p. 132; December, 2003, Bina Williams, Time to Pee!, p. 140; May, 2004, Robin L. Gibson, review of The Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog!, pp. 126-127.
Variety, November 13, 2000, Stuart Levine, review of Sheep in the Big City, p. 39.
Borders Web site, http://www.bordersstores.com/ (August 16, 2004), Trudy Wyss, "Hot Dog!: Mo Willems's Pigeon Returns."
Cartoon Network's Fridays: The Fan Site, http://fridays.toonzone.net/ (September 28, 2003), "Behind the Scenes Interviews: Tom Warburton and Mo Willems."
Hyperion Books for Children Web site, http://www.hyperionbooksforchildren.com/ (August 16, 2004), "Mo Willems."
Mo Willems Studio Web site, http://www.mowillems.com/ (August 16, 2004).*
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