A Rival For Pigeon In Willems' New 'Duckling'

Apr 24, 2012
Originally published on April 24, 2012 12:51 pm

For a certain set of readers, one need only say the word "pigeon" to set off a frenzied outburst of delight. Pigeon is the star of a series of best-selling children's books, including The Pigeon Finds a Hotdog! and Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! He's not much more than a stick figure with two circles for eyes, but he can still get huffy and display all the melodrama of a 4-year-old.

Pigeon's creator is Mo Willems, whose latest book, The Duckling Gets a Cookie!? co-stars Pigeon's oh-so-adorable little web-footed friend. Pigeon isn't mentioned in the title of the new book, a situation he does not appreciate. Willems tells NPR's Renee Montagne that while his books are funny to young readers, they're often a tragedy for poor Pigeon. "On the first page, I think, Pigeon says, 'I do not like the look of that title.' "

Willems says Pigeon is the only one of his characters that he didn't create himself. As an aspiring picture book author, he spent a month in Oxford, England, hoping to improve his craft. It didn't work. "And I made all these really terrible books," he says, "and in the margins, I started drawing this pigeon who was complaining about the other books."

The fowl-tempered pigeon commanded Willems to stop working on his other books and pay attention: " 'Don't write about them. Write about me. I'm funnier,' " he recalls the pigeon telling him. "So ... I turned him into a sketchbook that I did for clients and friends." That sketchbook ended up in the hands of an agent. "Now look at the mess I'm in," Willems says wryly.

Like novelists whose characters seem to develop an independent life, Willems says his Pigeon ends up somewhere in every book he writes. "And he just hates it when I'm not writing about him!"

Duckling, the star of Willems' newest book, is the polar opposite of cranky Pigeon. "Duckling is really the sweetest, kindest, most adorable little duckling. Duckling gets everything, and Pigeon doesn't," he says. "It's just part of another injustice that is around the pigeon. He doesn't get to drive the bus, he doesn't get to stay up late, and now he has to deal with this super cute, adorable thing that seems to be getting all the attention."

Pigeon's frustrations reflect the experiences of young children. "When you're a little kid, it just, it stinks," Willems says. "The furniture's not made to your scale, you can, literally, if you're having fun and somebody wants you to stop, they can lift you up and fly you into another room, they can take you away. You have to ask permission to go to the bathroom. And so here, I think, is the chance for you to stick it to the pigeon," which, Willems says, is just human nature. "If we're being trodden down, we're really looking for an opportunity to do it to somebody else."

Willems doesn't shy away from big issues, like loss, injustice and death. We Are in a Book! features his characters Elephant and Piggie, who realize that not only are they characters in a book, but that the book must soon come to an end. "This is the great thing about writing for kids, is the things that really matter to us as humans are heightened as a kid," he says. "It's love, it's jealousy, it's justice, it's wanting to drive a bus — these core, fundamental philosophical issues."

Willems has written for television as well as print; he won six Emmy awards for his work on Sesame Street. He says he's used to writing words that will be read aloud, whether by actors or parents telling a bedtime story — people he calls his "orchestra."

"And I have to make sure that my orchestra is engaged, that they're maybe being sillier than they normally are, that they're yelling and jumping around, so that that's what's going to make the book work better," he says.

"I want parents to be engaged, and I want them to laugh, because then it's cool," he adds. "I think that sometimes parents forget that they are the coolest people in the world to kids ... so if they're enjoying reading a book, suddenly the kid is going to say, 'Wow, reading books is awesome!' "

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

We're talking about picture books this week. And for certain set of readers, one need only say the word pigeon to set off a frenzy of delight.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Pigeon is the star of a series of best-selling children's books that begin with "Don't Let The Pigeon Drive The Bus!" Pigeon is not much more than a stick figure with a couple of circles for eyes, who can get huffy and display all the melodrama of a four-year-old.

MONTAGNE: Moe Willems created Pigeon. His latest book is "The Duckling Gets A Cookie!?" It features and oh-so adorable yellow duckling. And notice, Pigeon is not in the title. One might not even know he's in the book.

MO WILLEMS: Yeah, and that makes it even worse for him. You know, these are not funny books to the Pigeon. These are tragedies. So on the first page, I think, the Pigeon says, I do not like the look of that title.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MONTAGNE: So you really meet Pigeon first. And tell us about Pigeon.

WILLEMS: He is the only creation, the only character I've ever created that I didn't create. I really wanted to make children's books. I wanted to make picture books. So I spent a month in Oxford, England, thinking it would make me smarter. And it didn't. And I made all these really terrible books.

And in the margins, I started drawing this pigeon who was complaining about the other books, who was saying, don't write about them, write about me - I'm funnier. Stop this. This isn't funny - that sort of thing. And so, eventually I, sort of, I gave in and I turned him into a sketchbook that I give for clients and friends. And sort of by accident, this got into the hands of an agent. And, you know, now look at the mess I'm in.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MONTAGNE: Well, actually that sounds like what we sometimes hear from novelists, that their characters take on a life of their own and actually force them into some sort of path that they maybe didn't expect.

WILLEMS: Absolutely and, you know, the Pigeon ends up in the back of every book or somewhere hidden in every other book that I do. And he just hates it when I'm not writing about him. And so, I always have this constant sort of pecking on the side of my head, saying when are you going to make a book about me?

MONTAGNE: Well, this is theoretically about Duckling. And who is Duckling?

WILLEMS: Duckling is really the sweetest, kindest, most durable little duckling. Duckling gets everything and Pigeon doesn't. It's just part of another injustice that is around the Pigeon. He doesn't get to drive the bus. He doesn't get to stay up late. And now, yes a deal with the super cute, adorable thing that seems to be getting all the attention.

MONTAGNE: Let's read just a little bit of "The Duckling Gets A Cookie?!" Now, I couldn't even begin to think about being Pigeon. But I could probably take on Duckling.

WILLEMS: Oh. Oh, that's great. You would make a great duckling. You want to start at the beginning?

MONTAGNE: Sure.

Hello, scooty, scooty, scoot. May I have a cookie, please?

WILLEMS: And suddenly, magically a cookie comes at the frame.

MONTAGNE: And so Duckling has got a cookie and says, oh thanks, that was very nice of you. Oh, look at all those nuts.

WILLEMS: Hey, how did you get that cookie?

MONTAGNE: I ask for it.

WILLEMS: You asked for it?

MONTAGNE: Politely.

WILLEMS: Say, does that cookie have nuts?

MONTAGNE: Yes.

WILLEMS: So, you got a cookie with nuts just by asking?

MONTAGNE: Politely.

WILLEMS: I ask for things all the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MONTAGNE: It goes on. But for the part that, I gather, children will join in, and it's the big: Noooo.

WILLEMS: Noooo. Absolutely, I mean you know, there's it's - you know, part of it is when your a little kid, it just - it stinks. The furniture is not made your scale. You can literally, if you're having fun and some we want to stop, they can lift you up and fly you into another room - they can take you away. You have to ask permission to go to the bathroom, you know. And so here, I think is the chance for you to stick it to the Pigeon.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WILLEMS: Because that's...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WILLEMS: It's just human nature. You know, who before being trodden down, we're really looking for an opportunity to do it to somebody else.

MONTAGNE: Well, you know, your work - you've engaged with that of the big issues; loss injustice. And it seems like in one book - and this has been one of the Pigeon books - this is Elephants and Piggy, one in that series is "We Are in a Book!" And it seems like you're engaging there with death, or one's own end.

WILLEMS: I probably am. I mean Elephant and Piggy are, sure. You know, this is the great thing about writing for kids, is the things that really matter to us as humans are heightened in a kid. You know, its love. It's jealousy. It's justice. It's wanting to drive a bus, these core, fundamental philosophical issues.

MONTAGNE: Yeah, like wanting to drive bus.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MONTAGNE: That's definitely a core...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MONTAGNE: ...fundamental philosophical issue.

WILLEMS: Definitely. No, I mean that goes back to the Greeks.

MONTAGNE: Tell us about what "We Are in a Book!" The premise is they've discovered there in a book...

WILLEMS: It's self-awareness. Yes.

MONTAGNE: Elephant and Piggy.

WILLEMS: Yes. And it's a wonderful thing for them. They first, they discovered they're and a book. And so, like anybody who discovers they have power, the first thing they want to do is manipulate that power. So they're going to make these young readers say the word banana, whether they want to or not. Then Piggy says to Elephant, Well, do you want to come up with another game that we can play with these poor, innocent readers before the book ends.

And it's the first time that Elephant realizes that books end, and the pages are growing very quickly. So, he flips out.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MONTAGNE: But I'm not sure I want to give anything away.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MONTAGNE: But you figure out a way to resolve it.

WILLEMS: There is a solution. There has to be a solution.

MONTAGNE: You have a long relationship with writing for television. You've won six Emmys for your work at "Sesame Street." And that kind of writing shows up in your books, it seems, not just funny but also really works and it's very possible to read it out loud. Do you read out loud as you're writing?

WILLEMS: I think it's really important. I mean here's the weird thing is. I write for illiterates.

MONTAGNE: Three year olds.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WILLEMS: Right? So what that means is I am dependent on my orchestra. And my orchestra can be a parent, it can be a teacher, it can be a librarian. But I have to make sure that my orchestra is engaged. That they are, you know, maybe being sillier than they normally are; that they are yelling and jumping around, so that that's what's going to make the book work better. It's very, very important

Also, because it's a time to be together. You know, I want parents to be engaged and I want them to laugh, because then it's cool. I think that sometimes parents forget that they are the coolest people in the world to kids. They're just awesome. So if they're enjoying reading books, suddenly the kid is going to say, wow, reading books is awesome.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

WILLEMS: It's been a pleasure.

MONTAGNE: Mo Willems, his new book is "The Duckling Gets A Cookie?!" Take a peek at our Web site.

INSKEEP: And later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, NPR's Backseat Book Club, a series for older children.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR. I'm Steve Inskeep.

MONTAGNE: And I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.