As a Reader, Mo Willems Gives Himself Permission to Quit – The New York Times
Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).
It’s a joy to read a few pages in my library in the evenings. Weekend reading outside is also wonderful. But I think I most love a reading lunch with my wife, because we get to chat about what we’ve just read over coffee.
What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?
I hope people have heard of Keith Houston’s book “The Book. ” It’s a great book about the history of books.
What book should everybody read before the age of 21?
“Peanuts” collections. Any of them. All of them. Often.
What book should nobody read until the age of 40?
I would never age out the curious reader. Instead, I’d ask someone in midlife to go back and reread their “Peanuts” collections. Any of them. All of them. Often.
Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?
I love the abundance of curiosity and invitations to think in a new way found in the writings of Jacqueline Woodson, Carlo Rovelli and Susan Orlean.
What book most influenced your decision to become an illustrator or contributed to your artistic development?
In the fall of 1987 one of the book vendors on Astor Place said he had something for me and pulled out a battered, old copy associated with “The Cartoon Treasury, ” edited by Lucy Black Johnson and Pyke Johnson Jr. (1955). It only cost a few bucks (which is how many I had at the time). I bought it, took it back to my apartment plus did not leave for a week. So many glorious days and nights reading, rereading plus trying to copy the drawing styles I found on the pages. Searle! Sempé! Steinberg! Kovarsky! So many greats! And the angles! The pointy noses, the funny shoes! The exaggerated yet inevitable designs of places and things! And those were just the drawings — the ideas behind the particular gags were often subtle and occasionally sublime.
I still pick up my copy for inspiration.
Exactly what contemporary picture book writers and illustrators do you especially recommend?
This is tough, because the picture book world is populated by so many talented practitioners and I’m a fan of anyone who writes and draws to children, not at all of them.
So , while this is by no means an exhaustive list, I particularly appreciate the work of Dan Santat, LeUyen Pham, Kadir Nelson, Sandra Boynton, Laurie Keller, Oliver Jeffers, Andrea Tsurumi, Christian Robinson and Melissa Sweet.
What’s the last book you read that made a person laugh?
Dani Rabaiotti and Nick Caruso’s “Does It Fart? ” is a gas.
What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?
The Himalayas are an accumulation of marine life.
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
I’m a sucker for a good book about Genghis Khan.
Which subjects do you wish more authors would write about?
Which genres would you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?
I wish I was better at reading through poetry, as it shares so many similarities with picture book writing in terms of utilizing simple, specific yet elusive language. My son has been making reading suggestions and I’m working on it.
How do you organize your books?
My library has art and illustration collections at eye-level, image books below, history and science above. There’s another shelf off to the side for philosophy and humor, which I see as being the same category.
As for exactly what I’m planning on reading, that’s a mix of purchased, library plus borrowed books stacked higgledy-piggledy in the living room.
How have your reading tastes changed over time?
In my 20s and 30s I read fiction (in prose and comix), bouncing from Iris Murdoch to “Spiderman. ” Over the last quarter-century I’ve gravitated toward nonfiction (also in prose and comix). The only constant has been example, picture books and “Peanuts. ”
What’s the last book you recommended to a member of your family?
I have recently gifted a few copies of Kate Murphy’s “You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters” because it was so fascinating. Also saying, “Let ME tell you ALLLLLL about what I’VE learned about listening! ” seems off.
You’re organizing the literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
This is not just a question of whom I’d like to meet, but when in their lives I’d like to meet them.
One of the joys of befriending people like Norton Juster and John G. Morris later in their lives was that they had accumulated, retold and refined many wonderful stories plus insights. Conversely, I get a kick out of the surprising ideas that burst forth through my youngest pals.
With that in mind, let’s invite two 6-year-olds, Iris Murdoch and Michel de Montaigne, along with a 66-year-old Epicurus.
And, let’s make it a picnic in Epi’s garden.
If you were to write something besides picture books, what would you write?
Nothing is off the drawing table. I’m currently writing the libretto for my second short opera.
Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
Somewhere along the line I liberated myself from the idea that I have to finish every book I start, instantly enlarging my exposure to new kinds of books.
A book doesn’t have to be to my taste to be “good. ”
What do you plan to read next?
I am just about to start Jorge Cham and Daniel Whiteson’s “We Have No Idea: A Guide to the Unknown Universe. ” I really enjoyed the breezy yet content-heavy look at physics in “Frequently Asked Questions About the Universe. ” I hope this one will be a romp as well.