Category Archives: Children’s Books

‘Elephant and Piggie’ Author Mo Willems on the Importance of Teaching Kids to Fail

We are in a #longread!

Over the past eight years, when I wasn’t reading Pamela Colloff or Ariel Levy, I was probably reading Mo Willems. The children’s book author made the world giggle with Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus and the Elephant and Piggie series, and reduced every parent to tears with Knuffle Bunny Free, the final installment in the Knuffle Bunny series that is making me cry again just thinking about it. Darn you, Mo!

In Rivka Galchen’s wonderful New Yorker profile of Willems, we learn that Knuffle Bunny’s real-life main character Trixie (Willems’s daughter) is now 15, that Willems couldn’t write another Pigeon book (“He’s a monster!”) and that he’s particularly focused on kids learning to embrace the “f” word:

Willems’s books reveal a preoccupation with failure, even an alliance with it. In “Elephants Cannot Dance!,” they can’t; in “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!,” Pigeon, despite all his pleading and cajoling, never does. Willems told me, “At ‘Sesame Street,’ they would give us these workshops about the importance of failure, but then in our skits all the characters had to be great at what they did, everything had to work out. That drove me crazy.” One of his most memorable sketches on “Sesame Street” was about a Muppet, Rosita, who wants to play the guitar; she isn’t very good, even by the end of the episode. Many artists talk about the importance of failure, but Willems seems particularly able to hold on to the conviction of it. He is a distinctly kind, mature, and thoughtful person to spend time with, and there was only one anecdote that he told me twice. It was about a feeling he had recently while walking his dog, a kind of warm humming feeling starting in his abdomen, which, he said, he had never had before. Was it happiness? I asked. He said no. He’d felt happiness before. This was something different. He said he thought that, for the first time ever, he was feeling success.

The feeling would appear to be transient. When I asked him if it felt strange to no longer be writing Elephant and Piggie books—I was still working on a way to break the news to my daughter, who had been using the Other Titles endpaper as a field of dreams—he said, “Well, at least now I have my obituary.” Shortly afterward, he said, unprompted, “I think ‘What are you working on next?’ is the worst question. It’s such a bad question. I hate that question. Everyone asks that question. I want to say, ‘Isn’t this good enough for you?’ ”

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