The Brief Zine-Publishing Career of Mo Willems

By Jason Boog Comment

The children’s book creator Mo Willems is a household name now, the author of great series like Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale, and the Elephant and Piggie series.

However, in the 1990s, this then-unknown writer self-published collections as a ‘zine. The new collection, Don’t Pigeonhole Me!, includes sketches from this period. We caught up with Willems to find out more about that time in his life:

The first few “Mo Willems Sketchbooks” were issues of a ‘zine called Ersatz (I was young and broke and liked to drink with people who had nothing better to do than make an ‘zine called Ersatz). After that, I made the production company where I worked as an animation director print them (I was still young and hungry and no one in their right mind would ‘publish’ me). Finally, I started doing the printing myself (I was older and some of my ideas were publishable, but not all of them).

He continued:

I’m not sure I’d call the sketchbooks ‘self-publishing’ because, with the exception of Ersatz, the sketchbooks weren’t for sale. They were a xmas gift for pals and clients, which allowed me to be entirely free of commercial concerns.

Besides being the birthplace of “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!”, these books taught me a great deal about page turns and layout as well as learning to tackle the oxymoron of creating: severe discipline mixed with loose free-form experimentation. It’s fun and exciting to see all 20 annual efforts published as a nice art-book in “Don’t Pigeonhole Me!”

We also asked if he had any advice for the aspiring children’s writers in the audience. He offered these tips:

My basic advice has been collected on my blog under the heading “How to Write in 4 Easy Steps, 4 Kinda Harder Steps, and 1 Pretty Much Impossible Step.” As for ‘self-publishing’, I’m the wrong person to ask. I like having editors and art directors and marketing folks. They’re nice, they make my books better, and they let me concentrate on creating the best stories possible.

Otherwise, working in TV is great because you have to write quickly and efficiently to stay on schedule. More importantly, your work is anonymous, which allows you to make mistakes safely.

If my early efforts had been connected to my name, I’d be doomed.