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!' "