“And now,” announces Willems, 43, with the booming theatrics required to hold the attention of a short audience, “I am going to teach you how to infringe on my copyright!”
Do you get it now?
Mo Willems is doo-doo funny for kids, but he’s witheringly funny, almost sad-funny, for their parents. His books are the barometers of taste for the toddler set. His works, say the people who deeply believe in him, mean something — something both very basic and very complex that has been distilled into cartoons and monosyllabic words.
“He really,” says Edith Ching, a children’s literature instructor and friend of Willems, “he really understands the human condition.”
Real life at a child’s level
“The thing about writing for kids is that there are no cultural modifiers. You can’t say that something ‘is so Walter Mondale.’ ” You can’t reference the Kardashians. The Kardashians are meaningless to kids. “So all you have to work with is love, anger, jealousy — it’s a very small palette, but the existential crises are ultimately the same.”
Willems has just finished up at Raymond and is consoling his vocal cords with a cup of tea at a Columbia Heights coffee shop. Such recuperation is necessary because his readings are really more like interactive marathons, involving drawing lessons and shout-outs. He presides over them with a mixture of Pied Piper and Major General. “Please, no video,” he had gently admonished a grown-up in the audience. “No flash.”
He’s in Washington for the closing performances of “Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Musical,” based on one of his best-selling books. The stage version premiered at the Kennedy Center last year, did an 80-city tour around the country and returned in December. Its best number is a sorrowful siren song composed entirely of nonsense words (“Aggle Flaggle”) sung by Trixie, a child who, throughout the “Knuffle Bunny” series, loves, loses and eventually outgrows her stuffed rabbit. The character is loosely based on Willems’s own daughter, Trixie.
The first book in the series won a Caldecott Medal; the others — like many of Willems’s works, beginning with his first children’s book, “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus” in 2003 — rested for weeks atop bestseller lists.
The books are funny because they’re funny — there are underpants, and buffoon dads — and also because they’re tinged with the melancholia that underscores all great hilarity. Trixie does not think the loss of her rabbit is humorous. Pigeon would be, he says, “mortified” to learn that people were amused by his desire to drive a bus. “He thinks it’s, like, a WPA documentary of grief,” says Willems.