Mo Willems On Parenting And Inspiring Kids In 2020

The children's book author and illustrator opened up about creativity, kindness and more.
Willems looks on in rehearsals for a live performance at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. on May 29, 2019.
Willems looks on in rehearsals for a live performance at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. on May 29, 2019.

Mo Willems believes the world could use a lot more kindness right now.

“We are definitely living in very difficult and very troubled times,” the beloved children’s book author and illustrator told HuffPost. “There’s a remarkable amount of unkindness in the world, but it’s important for us to take care of ourselves and those around us. And just to jump up and down and be ridiculous.”

Embracing our fun and ridiculous sides is very much a theme of his first live-action special, “Mo Willems and The Storytime All-Stars Present: Don’t Let The Pigeon Do Storytime!” ― which debuts on HBO on Thursday. Filmed last year at the Kennedy Center, the family special features readings and sketch comedy by stars like Anthony Anderson, Yvette Nicole Brown, Rachel Dratch, Cameron Esposito, Tony Hale, Greta Lee, Tom Lennon, Natalie Morales and Oscar Nunez.

“I hope it will be a spark for creativity, for creating stuff ― also just for being silly,” Willems said. “One reason we’re using celebrities and having them jump up and down and be ridiculous is for the grown-ups watching this to think, ‘If Rachel Dratch or Anthony Anderson can do this, why not I?’ It’s a chance for hopefully everyone in the year can get inspired to read and be performative with their storytimes.”

Willems is known for bestsellers like “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!” and “Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale.” He said he is “overjoyed and humbled” to know that people have taken solace in his books during difficult moments and can create their own meaning over time.

“What I really hope is that kids will be able to express themselves through drawing, writing and playing with my characters,” he noted. “That’s where magic is.”

The writer offered his advice for parents who want to raise kind children in today’s world.

“This idea that we want to ‘instill’ things in children makes them seem like luggage rather than human beings that you love,” he said. “Anything that you want for your kids, the answer is you should do it. If you want your kids to be creative and draw, you should be creative and draw. If you want your kids to be more patient, you need to be more patient. I think one of the secrets that grown-ups forget is when your children are young, you as the grown-up in their life are really cool and the things you do are really cool to them.”

Putting in the work applies not just to parenting, but to other relationships as well. Willems noted that his “Elephant and Piggie” book series focuses on friendship, “not as happiness but as work.”

“You can make mistakes, you can realize them, and you can make up for them. Those are the building blocks of friendship,” he said. “Perhaps we as a culture could work toward being friends more than towards destroying each other.”

Willem poses with stuffed characters Knuffle Bunny and Pigeon at his home in Northampton, Massachusetts, in 2015.
Willem poses with stuffed characters Knuffle Bunny and Pigeon at his home in Northampton, Massachusetts, in 2015.

A true creative, Willems is always working on new projects. He enjoys exploring big philosophical questions and topics that “excite” and “frighten” him.

“I’ve been making a lot of abstractions lately because color, shape, and form are eternal and beautiful,” he said.

Creating is a big part of everyday life with Willems’ family, which includes his wife, Cheryl, and teenage son, Trix.

“The freshman year of college was not what we expected it to be. We hoped he would be out of the house making small mistakes,” he said, adding that Trix instead has been at home helping with projects and working on his own.

“We all take solace in our work, and we’re happy we get to make work,” the author explained. “My wife is a potter. My son is a great illustrator and draws realistically, so we spent a lot of our time trying to create and make things. One important thing about all of this is you don’t draw just to express yourself but to discover yourself, to discover how you’re feeling. We allow ourselves the time to find ourselves through the making of things.”

For Willems, this is a lifelong process that begins at an early age. He recently observed a young girl in his neighborhood exhibit what seemed like “the perfect metaphor for childhood, grown up and life.”

“She’s in the yard doing cartwheels, bending over backwards, landing on her hands, doing handstands, walking on her hands,” he recalled. “Then she gets up, walks up the stairs, trips and falls on her face. I think that’s who we all are. We’re capable of remarkable things, but then we fall on our face. And we’re still learning and questioning. That’s the joy.”