Celebrating Friendiversary with Mo Willems

Friendiversary is all about appreciating your friends, old and new, and remembering the good times you’ve had together. For First Book, one of our oldest and best author friends is Mo Willems, award-winning creator of the Elephant and Piggie children’s book series.

Like any old friend, when we get together the conversation can go from here to there and back again in an instant. Read on to learn more about Mo’s books, First Book’s mission, our history together, and maybe get an insider’s tip on a hypothetical karaoke sing-off.

In Conversation with Mo Willems

First Book: We have had the distinct pleasure of partnering with you for many years. In particular, we have loved the opportunity to promote Friendiversary and supply tens of thousands of copies of Elephant and Piggie books to students served by First Book members. Can you talk a little about what Friendiversary, the anniversary of the time when Gerald and Piggie became friends, means to you and what inspired the creation of such a fun and whimsical holiday?

Mo Willems: The Friendiversary project was a direct result of Hurricane Katrina battering my hometown of New Orleans in 2005.  Immediately after the storm, I visited displaced students in Baton Rouge and discovered they had nothing; no desks, no paper, no pencils, no books. It was a sobering moment.

For the next several years, my wife and I tried to distribute as many books to kids in New Orleans schools with the help of a few friends, but we soon realized that we were ill-equipped to take on the logistics at the scale we were hoping for.

First Book was an obvious and perfect partner to help us reach our goal of having as many kids as possible go home with their own book.  While working on the distribution model everyone realized that this project was something to celebrate, so why not celebrate with a party?

Mo with First Book staff members at a 2013 Friendiversary celebration.

My publisher, Disney/Hyperion, joined the party and created fun posters, headbands, and activities to supplement our books. Over the years we opened up distribution to neighboring schools in Massachusetts, where we now live and continued to try and extend our reach every year. Soon, the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art also joined in, opening their doors for a free, art-filled day of activities, including transportation for area families who might not get out to the museum and helping arrange an annual school visit to one of the participating schools. That afternoon with the kids is the highlight of my year.

First Book: How did Gerald and Piggie first come to being, and how have their characters (the drawings of them or their personalities) evolved or changed over time?

Mo: Elephant Gerald and Piggie’s inclusion in this early reader series was the result of a long casting process.  Gerald came first, having appeared previously in such venues as my notebooks and the doodles we make every night during dinner on our paper tablecloth. Finding a suitable foil to this paranoid pachyderm turned out to be trickier than anticipated. But, as soon as Piggie stepped into one of my sketches, I knew we had our pig.

First Book: Our First Book staff loves to talk about whether we’re more like Gerald or more like Piggie. Which are you – more Gerald or more Piggie? Of all the characters you’ve created, which one most closely resembles yourself?

Mo: I am an aspiring Piggie with deep Elephant Gerald traits with a dash of The Pigeon on the side.

First Book: What led or inspired you to start writing for beginning readers?

Mo: Writing for beginning readers is much like learning to read; it’s not easy but the challenge is fun and the rewards of success are immeasurable.

I had to give it a shot (and I’m glad I did).

First Book: You must have thousands of funny and/or poignant anecdotes from interactions with your adoring fans. Can you share one or two with us here?

Mo: I have been lucky enough to hear from parents whose kids first became readers with my books, hipsters who have tattooed my characters on their bodies, teens whose love for drawing was sparked by copying my work, and teachers and librarians who explain how they use my books to inspire writing and drawing with their students. With an embarrassment of riches like that, how could I choose a favorite?

Okay, it’s the kid who wrote this to me: “I LIKE YOU BOOK S BECAUSE YOU GET ALL WORKT UP OVR NUTEN.”

First Book: You frequently post pictures on social media of your dinner-time doodles and other occasions in which you’re creating art from whatever is on hand. How else do you incorporate art into your everyday life?

mo willems dinner table doodle on Twitter
@The_Pigeon: Had to mussel through tonite’s dining room dinner doodles.

Mo: Drawing and Doodling are two distinct activities.

Drawing is a planned event with the desired outcome (I want this drawing to look like a previous drawing of Piggie and has to be funny, sad, or silly).  Frankly, a good drawing takes practice, revision, and dedication to the craft of putting lines on paper.

Doodling is a free-form opening of your head and your hand to discover new things.  It has no goal outside of the joy of the process, the surprise, the moment.

While perhaps not everyone can spend their days drawing, doodling is essential to recharging the soul.  It’s fun!

First Book: Who do you think would win a karaoke sing-off – Gerald, Piggie, or the Pigeon?

Mo: [Diary of a Wimpy Kid author] Jeff Kinney would blow them all out of the water.

Supporting Authors at First Book

First Book and Mo Willems have been working together and celebrating Friendiversary over the years! Check out more from Mo and other authors when you explore Author Voices on the blog.