Mo Willems on writing for the reluctant reader

Video: Willems reads from his upcoming book, “The Pigeon Needs a Bath.” His animated reading is just how books should be read to a child to help them grow into book lovers.

Mo Willems, the award-winning author of books featuring characters like Elephant and Piggie, Trixie and Knuffle Bunny, and, of course, the Pigeon, is one of the most prolific children’s-book authors around. His play “Elephant & Piggie’s We Are in a Play,” starring Elephant and Piggie, is currently onstage at the Kennedy Center. Willems recently talked to The Post about young readers, his own reading habits and how to help reluctant readers love books; what follows is an edited transcript.

Time and time again, your books come up as recommended reading for children. My own children gravitate to them and my older son is reading “We Are in a Book” every night to his little brother, trying hard not to say “banana.”

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Why do you think your books are good for young readers, the reluctant ones in particular?

They’re built for young readers. Whether they’re good or not, that’s not for me to say. They’re little bits of sketch comedy. There is a performative quality to them. Big words are loud, little words are soft. The more silly and sketchlike it is, the more fun it is to read. They are for people who haven’t learned to be embarrassed yet, because that’s a learned behavior.

Your book is your shield. If they’re walking around yelling “BANANA!,” a parent will say stop. But if they have a book and they’re yelling it, they are engaging in high-frequency words.

There is something fun about it being performative. They’re literally bringing these books to life.

Trixie is a popular heroine in our home, and many others, thanks to Knuffle Bunny. Can you tell us if she’s a reader and likes books? Did you and your wife have to encourage that? How?

She’s very old now. Seventh grade, and she is an avid reader. She reads, if anything, too much — while she’s eating, brushing teeth — any possible situation. That comes from my wife being an avid reader. . . . My daughter and I read comics very frequently. Our library is an important part of the house and the local library is an important place to visit. The first thing we did when we moved to Paris was sign up at the . . . library.

What were some of your favorite books growing up? I was a comic strip reader. For me, I had a lot of Tin Tin, Peanuts anthologies, pretty much any cartoons I could get my hands on. I did have some Dr. Seuss. But that may be it.

“Reluctant reader” is code word for boy. . . . I was not considered a reader. For my generation, reading comic strips was like smoking or something. [I wasn’t considered a reader] because I didn’t gravitate to “Little House on the Prairie,” [and that’s] completely unfair, if the only books are going to be about a dog you know is going to die in the middle of Wisconsin.

Why did you get into writing children’s books in the first place? I started writing for children at “Sesame Street.” I was writing comedy before. I was very excited because it was a sketch comedy show and it was paycheck. It was there that I realized I was more suited writing for children than adults.

I wanted to do books because I wanted to be home and wanted to have a little more control over my work. When I was writing for television I was interested in writing about failure and that wasn’t allowed. . . . Like, not being allowed to drive a bus.

Who are you picturing when you are writing a book? Is there a particular type of child, or is it more about what you’re most interested in?

My motto is always think of your audience, never think for your audience.

Last words of wisdom to help parents help create readers?

Just make it fun. Do it with the kids. Turn it into a sketch. Make it a show. With my kid, it was to read the story wrong. She’d know the story and correct me.

Your next book?

It is my first dirty book. “Pigeon Needs a Bath.”

 
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