Above: A very silly Mo Willems at a very silly event
Mo Willems was in Redmond, WA a few weeks ago for the release of his final installment in the Knuffle Bunny series: Knuffle Bunny Free (two week #1 New York Times Bestseller so far and definitely a potential Caldecott winner). Naturally, I went to see him along with Kelsey and some of my new family members.
Above: Enya (Nunu/my cousin) and Mo Willems
I have been a big fan of Mo Willems for some time now and I'm not alone. The crowd was huge (Borders was ill prepared to host the overflow crowd) and Mo is easily the most popular children's book author/illustrator in the world today. Called by some the Dr. Seuss of our day! It was awesome to meet him in person and hear him read aloud (perhaps "play aloud" or "act aloud" would be more accurate) some of his books. One of the books he read from is one of my new all-time-favorites: We Are In A Book (An Elephant and Piggie Book). As the title suggests, the two main characters make the discovery that they are actually in a book. This leads to the realization that they can make the reader say words out loud and the frightening truth that the book will eventually end. All silly people will go bananas for this book! Why? This touches on a topic I have posted about several times before. The book is participatory for the audience and somewhat subversive (in breaking the mold of the "book" format). Kids and those young at heart love how interactive Mo Willems' books are made to be. Mo himself states often in interviews that he means for his books to be played with. The kids at my workplace love to play with Mo's books (I got a signed book for them) and ask me to read his books over and over again. I've noticed most of the books I am asked to read aloud are ones that truly engage the reader. Melanie Watt is another example of an author who is talented at getting kids involved with her books. The Chester series is fantastic at achieving this and so too is the Scaredy Squirrel series. It is not just the text or stories that makes the books interactive. It is an interplay between the words and pictures. Willems' pictures and Watt's pictures are both accessible for kids due to the simplicity of the design. Kids can draw the protagonists and make up their own stories about them without being intimidated by the artwork.
I think both Willems and Watt stand out as reasons why the picture book market is far from dead (as a recent New York Times article claimed). I believe we are in a golden era for the picture book. Picture books today are funnier than they have ever been, better crafted (in general), and more participatory. There is a lot that those of us aspiring to be published authors/illustrators can learn from those who have been successful lately. It is important to truly consider the audience. As Willems would say, kids are a lot like adults. The only difference is they are generally shorter. Their emotions are just as keen and their love for a laugh is just as great. Seeing Mo interact with his audience (including me) was truly inspiring.