Publishing Success is Child’s Play for Mo Willems ’86

What must it be like inside the head of Mo Willems? It surely must be a bright and joyous place, full of plucky animals, clueless adults and plenty of laughs. Anyone with a child under 10 knows Mo Willems ’86 from his beloved and bestselling books, including Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale and his Elephant and Piggie series.

Willems began his career as a writer and animator for PBS’s Sesame Street, where he earned six Emmy Awards. During that time he also created two animated series, Nickelodeon’s The Off-Beats and Cartoon Network’s Sheep in the Big City.

While serving as head writer for Cartoon Network’s top-rated show, Codename: Kids Next Door, Willems began writing and drawing books for children. His first, Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, was a New York Times bestseller and won a Caldecott Honor in 2004. Knuffle Bunny received a Caldecott the next year, and Knuffle Bunny Too: A Case of Mistaken Identity, took a third Caldecott in 2008.

Willems’s easy reader series, the Elephant and Piggie books, won the Theodor Geisel Medal in 2008 and 2009. He also created an illustrated memoir of his year-long trip around the world in 1990-1991 called You can Never Find a Rickshaw When it Monsoons.

Willems has shown his drawings, wire sculptures and ceramics (done in collaboration with his father) in galleries and museums across the country. His graphic story about his family experiences during 9/11 for DC comics resides in the permanent collection of the Library of Congress.

Willems came to Newman in the ninth grade and “immediately started doing as many plays as I could (I was absolutely certain I would become an actor).” Fortunately, he says, “Kitty Greenberg made sure that there were lots and lots of plays. I even got to direct one, which was a big thrill.”

By his senior year, thanks to the audiovisual teacher Laura Covington, Willems made a few short videos and decided to go to New York University’s film school. (“By then I was absolutely certain I would become a movie director,” he says).

He also tried stand-up comedy at a local club along with Jeff Edelstein, a Newman English teacher (“By then I was absolutely certain I would become a comedian.”).

Willems and his wife, Cheryl, have a 7-year-old daughter, a dog and a hamster. After more than 20 years in Brooklyn, Willems moved to a small town in western Massachusetts last fall.

In addition to working on more books, Willems is writing the script and lyrics to a Knuffle Bunny musical, commissioned by the Kennedy Center for its 2010 season.