FLR: Were you a big reader of cartoons and comic strips? What were some of your favorites growing up?
MW: Oh, of course! My childhood dream was to become a syndicated cartoonist. Consequently, I devoured Peanuts (and still do). As I aged, the pacing of Doonesbury and the exuberance of Calvin and Hobbes had a deep effect on me. Currently, I’m a huge fan of Richard Thompson’s sublime Cul de Sac.
FLR: What kind of inspiration do you draw from being a parent? How do you think your work has changed since your daughter Trixie was born?
MW: Life is more fun with Trixie around. I’m sure that’s spilled over into my work somehow, but mostly it’s made me a happier person.
FLR: What can you tell us about the origins of your new series for preschoolers, Cat the Cat, scheduled to begin in February 2010?
MW: The Cat the Cat books are my attempt to pare everything down to its most basic form, yet remain surprising and funny. Cat the Cat and her pals live in a kind, joyful world; but that doesn’t mean they always know what they’re doing.
FLR: We noticed a much greater use of color and bolder lines in Cat the Cat as compared to the Elephant & Piggie series. What other differences do you see between the two series, besides the targeted audience?
\MW: Even though Elephant & Piggie are structured to work as Early Readers and the Cat the Cat books were created with a very young audience in mind, I wouldn’t be surprised or unhappy if families or teachers decided to reverse their functions.
As a craftsman, my job is to make my books as utilitarian and functional as possible. The more useful they are, the better. As for the palette and technique of each book—those are driven by the characters and their needs.
FLR: In your opinion what is the biggest hurdle for parents and kids to cross in literacy development?
MW: I’m no expert, but I suspect that parents will have a harder time instilling a passion for books to their kids if they don’t actively enjoy reading on their own and lead by example. I read with my daughter primarily because it’s fun and I think she picks up on that.
FLR: Your naked mole rat is considerably cuter than the real thing. Did you have trouble creating an appealing cartoon version?
MW: The trick was to create cartoon characters that could emote without a mouth. I tried to keep the little guys funny by making their heads way too big for their bodies, so it looked like they might topple over at any time. The fact that I used one of Charles Schulz’s old nibs to ink the drawings only made it harder. Although, it might have helped push the Naked Mole Rats in a Snoopy-esque direction…
FLR: The expressions and nonverbal communication of Trixie in Knuffle Bunny are so true to life. Do you find it easier to draw those kind of expressions for animals or for people?
MW: As a young animator, I obstinately refused to draw cartoon animals. That’s what Disney animators did and I had no patience for their saccharine sensibilities. I liked the jazzy studio UPA that used writers like Dr. Seuss and James Thurber and cartooned funky, two-dimensional people. I think it wasn’t until I created Sheep in the Big City for Cartoon Network that I started drawing animals at all.
My attitude, like my middle, has softened with age. Now I appreciate the advantage that animals give in allowing you to sidestep issues of age, race and class so you can focus on the emotionality of the story.
FLR: When you are first getting to know a new character through doodling and so forth, do you share those sketches with anyone else, or is the process very private?
MW: I have a cadre of supporters (my editor, my agent, my wife and my daughter) who I’m always eager to show my ideas, even if I’m occasionally less than eager to hear their reactions…
FLR: You’ve spoken of purposefully reducing your characters to their simplest form—is this so that young readers will be inspired to try their own hands at creating? How early in your work did you come to this philosophy?
MW: As I mentioned earlier, I see myself as a craftsman who makes utilitarian goods. I want my books to be used over and over for all kinds of purposes, from education to simple entertainment.
This comes, I think, from growing up in my father’s pottery studio. His production pottery was supremely useful, its beauty stemming solely from how elegantly it served its function.
None of his stuff was art and he was proud of it. I see myself in the same light. I want my books to be simple, useful, funny, re-usable household objects. I’ll leave the art to someone else.
FLR: What did you learn about the production of pop-up books in the process of creating Big Frog Can’t Fit In? Was it planned as a pop-up from the beginning?
MW: The idea of a character that physically doesn’t fit in could only be done with a pop-up book. I knew there would be a steep learning curve, and frankly that was part of the appeal, the desire to shake things up. Again, I was lucky in having a talented and patient collaborator in paper engineer Bruce Foster.
FLR: What did writing for television teach you about writing for children? Did you have any other jobs prior to Sesame Street and full time book creation?
MW: Oh, my checkered past includes stints painting bubble gum cards, bartending for Mardi Gras balls and taking pictures for book covers about psychological disorders.
I’d done stand-up comedy as a teenager in New Orleans and London. When I got to college I started a comedy group called The Sterile Yak with David Wain, Todd Holubeck and a bunch of others. After a year the group spun off into two teams, one of which became MTV’s The State. They began their TV series just as I got my first gig writing on a cartoon show for Nickelodeon. As chance would have it, they plopped me in a big open space on 1515 Broadway overlooking Times Square with 3 other start-ups: The State, Beavis and Butthead and The Jon Stewart Show. The crews of all the shows mixed around, nevertheless I was actively jealous of Dave and his pals; my childhood dream had been to work on a sketch show (it didn’t help that the show I worked on canned before it could be produced).
So, the following year when my big break came to write on Sesame Street, I was probably more excited about writing sketch material than writing for kids. It took a few seasons for me to really focus on creating for a young audience without patronizing them.
When I did, it was a revelation. The show’s enforced simplicity, the magical world set in an emotionally real setting and the structured zaniness… these elements certainly informed my current sensibility.
Ultimately, however I found that the scale of television production and the costs involved are so heavy they crush the smaller, quirky stories I wanted to tell. Being extraordinarily lucky, publishers and readers allowed me to make picture books and open a new world for me.
FLR: Can you tell us a bit more about 2010’s The Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Musical, for which you are writing the script and lyrics? Will it have a Greek chorus of dancing laundry? Will Knuffle Bunny sing?
MW: The play is shaping up to be great fun, thanks to the staff at the Kennedy Center and the rest of Team Knuffle. It looks like Broadway star, muppeteer, and old pal Stephanie D’Abruzzo will play the role of Trixie, which is awesome because, in addition to being a great performer, she’s the one who, when the real Trixie was born, gave us the beloved stuffed animal that inspired the Knuffle Bunny story.
Stephanie will get to sing a big, dramatic solo number entirely in gibberish.
FLR: Care to reveal any details as to the plot of Knuffle Bunny picture book #3?
MW: I’ve been working on this project for several years and am just finishing up the final illustrations, which is a thrill. I’ll tell you this: The third installment involves global travel and is the definite end of the Knuffle Bunny saga.
While I can’t speak to the quality of the story, the digital collage technique of cartoon and photographs is dramatically stronger than in the previous books and includes multiple “Easter Egg” cameos from my other characters…
FLR: OK, so we know Elephant’s name is Gerald, but what is Piggie’s??? Does she have another name, and has it ever been revealed?
MW: Piggie’s name is Piggie because when she was born she looked so wonderfully Piggie. I named the pachyderm “Elephant Gerald” as a pun on one of my favorite singers.
FLR: And last but not least: is the pigeon still your favorite of the characters you have created? (He probably won’t read this interview, so you can answer honestly).
MW: The cliché that your books are like children is very true. Some books, like kids, grow up to be disappointments, but you can’t tell anyone that. You have to say that you love them equally.
I love all my characters equally.