Why Books? — The Zena Sutherland Lecture

It is an honor to have been asked to talk about books while they still exist. (Spoiler alert: next year’s Sutherland lecturer will be a downloadable app.)

And that, my friends, is the key to my current two-word existential dilemma: “Why books?”

In the past it was enough to say that if you get a book into a kid’s hands, you’re creating a “lifelong reader.” But why does that matter? Do we really want “lifelong readers”? Shouldn’t they at least get to take occasional bathroom breaks? Why is this extraneous question here in the middle of these other ones? And, what does reading do that makes it so special?

To be honest, books as we know them are looking pretty vulnerable right now. They can’t talk back to you. If you shake them, they don’t do things. You can’t turn them on. They don’t make sounds. They don’t have word jumbles or other not-terribly-fun games. What do they do? With all the new technological possibilities, why not file Books between Betamax and Eight-Track Tapes?

I’ve thought about this very seriously of late and I’m not out of the rabbit hole yet, so first let me just go through my own personal journey with the nitty-gritty of making books to see if there is value to be found there.

In the past eight years or so, I’ve written and illustrated numerous books, yet I really never know what I’m doing when I create a book. That is why I love it. It’s an adventure with no guarantee that it will work out in the end. I am alone in a sea of ideas, hoping to catch a current that will lead to an undiscovered land. Well, I’m not completely alone. I have the structure of my past work, and I am guided through the storms by this simple mantra: always think of your audience; never think for your audience.

This is done by putting as little as possible into the final work so as to leave room for my audience to enhance the story. As a simple test, if I re-read one of my manuscripts and I understand exactly what is happening, then the manuscript has too many words. And if I look at the images without the words and I can fully understand the story, there are too many drawings. It is only right when both words and image need each other to make any sense. They need to be as close to incomprehensible, separately, as possible.

Yes, I make incomprehensible books for illiterates.

Incomprehensible also because I never know what the book I’ve made “means.” That’s my audience’s job. You, the reader, create meaning out of the story; I just set the table. The fundamental truth of this was driven home when I read two early reviews for my first picture book, Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! The first one said, “I love this book because it teaches perseverance. It teaches kids never to give up. To fight on.” The second review said, “I love this book because it teaches kids to value the word ‘no,’ to know when to stop.”

Here’s the thing: both reviews were right. Their authors each brought their own selves to the story and in their minds created meanings that had never occurred to me. They became the co-authors of the book, implanting the meaning that was purposefully omitted, or perhaps obscured. Because, truth be told, I don’t have any answers. I’m not interested in them.

Why would I want to write about things I know? I already know them. I prefer to write about things I don’t know, about things that perplex me, create a sense of wonder in me, or are simply weird. So I write about things like: What is a friend? How do you keep a friend? How does what you do by accident change your environment and how do you come to grips with that? Wouldn’t it be cool to drive a bus? You know, the sort of fundamental, deep emotional questions that we all have. (All rules have exceptions and my second book, Time to Pee! is one. Personally, I’ve been urinating with great success for years, so I did know what I was writing about that time. But I wasn’t sure why my kid was reluctant to do it in a particular room.)

Writing is, like any athletics, a learned skill refined only by consistent and strenuous workouts over time. I learned how to write from years and years of writing and performing sketch comedy, making short animated films, and writing cartoon strips, all of which stemmed from a deep abiding love of sketch comedy. Bill Cosby’s albums, the Monty Python television series, Peanuts comic strips—they are all perfect sketches. Clean, pure, but structured with a deep understanding of the world and how it works.

I learned how to write for children, however, with great reluctance. As fate would have it, in my strivings to be a sketch comedy writer I found myself being hired to write sketch comedy for a show that targeted children, called Sesame Street. At first I didn’t care that I was working on a kiddie show; I was writing sketch! Just like my pals on MTV or in the hipster clubs. If I squinted just right, the “kids” part of my work disappeared.

Then, over a season or two, something unexpected happened. I realized that writing for Sesame Street wasn’t easier, or even equally as difficult, as the sketch material I’d been doing previously. It was harder. I couldn’t use cultural modifiers: the entire world of pop culture references, that lazy backbone of sketch, was lost to me. Arc de Triomphe, Super Bowl, Cadillac. Those are just silly sounds to kids; they have no emotional meaning. Not because kids are stupid, but because they’re new. They just got here. All they have is jealousy, anger, love, joy, fear. Writing for a kid means you can’t exploit genres and fads and fashions. The only weapon left in your arsenal is truth.

It was revelatory and life changing (and frankly liberating: I didn’t have to keep up on pop culture, freeing up lots of time for adventures). My path was set; now I wanted—no, I was compelled—to write for people who were just starting out in life.

This began a period of great introspection. I thought long and hard about my childhood and slowly realized a fundamental truth that is the complete opposite of what everyone tells you about childhood: namely, it sucks to be a kid.

Certainly, in contrast to the life of a grownup, kids have it hard. Every piece of furniture is built to the wrong scale for you. You have to ask permission to urinate. And some adult might say no. Try this as a test: next time you’re at a dinner party, say, “May I go to the bathroom?” Then imagine your hostess saying, “No, I don’t think so. You’re staying right there. And finish those smelly vegetables. I know you want to retch. I don’t care. Eat them.”

And kids don’t have years of experience to fall back on. Every disappointment, every failure, is a world-stopping first. How do they survive? How did we all survive that? I’m not sure. But recently I’ve realized they have one shield in their lives that most of us adults have lost: they haven’t yet learned to be embarrassed.

And that’s what embarrassment is: a learned behavior.

So TV got me to want to write for unembarrassed kids. But television wasn’t done teaching me an essential key to writing.

At some point in my career I found myself being asked to create a TV show. Foolishly, I was told I could do anything I wanted; more foolishly, I did. I created a show called Sheep in the Big City. Has anybody heard of the show? Raise your hands. Okay. You six guys. Great. You made up sixty percent of my audience.

For the rest of you, the show was about a sheep. And a big city. The sheep, named Sheep, is being chased by General Specific and his henchman Private Public, members of a top-secret military organization named The Top-Secret Military Organization trying to capture this urban sheep to put it in a sheep-powered ray gun. Now why not use another sheep, you ask? Well, because they had already built the ray gun to his specifications. Mixed in with the episodes are lots of spoof commercials for products—the Oxymoron Brand of useless products.

And every episode ended with thirty seconds of a ranting Swede.

Almost as quickly as it hit the air this show was canceled. Can you believe it?

I couldn’t.

I’d worked so long and so hard, ensuring that every joke was as funny, or as weird, as possible. Still, very, very few people enjoyed it. I was flummoxed.

The real reason why the show was canceled came not from the network but from a ten-year-old on some message board who wrote, “I don’t like this show because the writer is trying too hard.” Trying too hard? That shocked me to my core.

I could not think of another industry where this would be a problem. “Oh, man. Y’know that plumber, Joe? What is up with that guy? He shows up early. He comes in, he plumbs the hell out of the house, doesn’t take a single cigarette break, I don’t see butt once. He’s working soooo hard…I don’t trust him.”

But in writing it’s different. The people watching Sheep in the Big City or reading my stories are not interested in me or the work I do. It shouldn’t look like work to them. It’s just a story. A magical thing that suddenly, effortlessly, appears and entertains and provokes. Certainly such a thing can’t be made. The lesson is, if you’re not invisible, you’re not doing your job. So, work harder until no one sees you.

I should have known that. I should have known better.

You know, I started out doing stand-up comedy when I was in high school. And the reason I did was because the comedy club was the only place I could go and be guaranteed that no one would laugh at me. But over time you develop those muscles. You write joke after joke after joke after joke, and, ever so slowly, you learn what doesn’t work. What you learn is not “what is funny” but “what is not funny.” So when you’re writing, you write to get rid of all the not-funny stuff until what’s left, hopefully, works. I want to have as few words as possible. I want the whole story to just be hanging by a thread. So my audience will become invested in it and save it.

It’s the same with my images. Everything I do is reductive. I make my drawings as simple as possible to the point of abstraction. Put as little in as possible. Because kids can “make” books, I consciously design my characters so that they can be easily copied by a five-year-old.

Every month, I get a box of fan mail—it’s just awesome. Kids send me their books. Their actual books. Don’t Let the Pigeon Operate the Catapult. Don’t Let the Pigeon Audit Your Neighbor. The Pigeon Gets a Cell Phone. All kinds of just amazing stuff, and that’s the highest possible compliment; that’s the ultimate goal.

It’s how I got started. I started out drawing Charlie Brown pictures. I loved it so much I wrote to Charles Schulz once when I was five and said, “Dear Mr. Schulz, may I have your job when you die?” Man, I loved Charlie Brown. I grew up in the early seventies, and every other pop cultural character was blissfully happy. Remember? The landscape was filled with gleeful rodents on lithium running across the screen. I felt bad that I wasn’t as happy as those mice. But there was always “Chuck.” A kid whose life was worse than mine. Awesome.

That comic strip was printed on cheap newsprint. It was meant to be thrown away, unlike a piece of art. But it was useful. It was useful to me. That corner of the newspaper that showed up every day gave me more consolation in my lonely childhood world than anyone or anything.

That’s what I want my books to be: utilitarian. You don’t drink coffee out of a mug because it’s a work of art. You drink out of a mug because it works, then you worry if it is pretty or not. In the same way, whatever ideas you’re going to pour into my book, I need to make sure it can hold them first. Because that’s all a book can do. It can hold just two ideas: the author’s and the audience’s.

But the book doesn’t work, it can’t work, unread.

So back to my question of “Why books?” What if books are better because they don’t do things, because they can’t do things? What if the thing that makes books great, that makes them essential, is that books need us? They’re simple. You invest in them and become part of them. You contribute. They can be read, but they can also be played. I’m not really interested in you guys reading my books a hundred times; read it twenty times and then make your own story. Go from consuming a story to creating your own. This is a magical thing to me.

I have a running machine in my house, and if I set that machine for twenty minutes of fast running and leave the room to get some tea and fried eggs, it doesn’t know the difference! Nor, I might add, does it care.

And I think that’s what most enhanced digital books are at this point. With all their bells and whistles and word jumbles and assorted narrative killers, after we turn them on, they don’t need us. Turn it on and leave the room, and the book will read itself.

But a real book is helpless. It needs us desperately. We have to pull it off the shelf. We have to open it up. We have to turn the pages, one by one. We even have to use our imagination to make it work. What does Elephant Gerald sound like? Is the Pigeon a boy or a girl? Does Leonardo the Terrible Monster live in the city or in the country?

We have to do all of that, we have to do the work with our little minds and our flapping flights of fancy. So, suddenly, that book is not just a book; it’s our book. We’re the ones making it work. We’re the ones making it sing. Right there in our chairs as we gently flip the pages, we are, at our own pace, creating a living story just by reading.

And you don’t have to turn off a book during takeoff and landing.

So, maybe books work because they make us work. Maybe we need them for needing us, just like we need real friends, not the digital imitations on Facebook.

Thank you for bearing with me.

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Mo Willems About Mo Willems

Mo Willems is the author and/or illustrator of over forty picture books for children. His article is adapted from the 2011 Zena Sutherland Lecture, which he delivered on May 6, 2011, at the Chicago Public Library.

Comments

  1. You’ve been a staple at our house for a while now. Because my kids love your books. Because they’re fun to read (an underestimated children’s book quality). Because the illustrations are fantastic. Because my daughter is teaching herself to write by copying them. But this article cemented your place in my grown-up life. Because I needed someone else to articulate what I feel about books. Thanks for that!

  2. Thank you! Oh, I love it when people stand up for Real Books. I just can’t stomach the thought of curling up on the couch with my future grandchildren and a machine, instead of a picture book!

  3. Fabulous post! And right on, in my opinion. My children and I are huge fans. I love the Elephant and Piggie series because of the way it appeals to children’s sense of humor. Those were the first books my oldest son sucessfully read aloud. I remember just sitting with him, both of us cracking up as we read. Keep those fabulous books coming!!!!

  4. Crystal Barringer says:

    I can’t believe every single librarian in the world hasn’t: a. read this article b. passed it on and c. printed it out and pinned it on their clothing! Did I mention I am a librarian and I love books and this article very much?

  5. You are truly a gem. Thank you for posting when we needed a boost!
    Diane

  6. great ideas. I also like hugging books.

  7. I think about this so much, too. For me as an educator and parent, I think the digital book won’t go away so we need to find a way to allow it to serve a purpose — to comprehend digital media, to become engaged in story in a less zombie-way than television, to interact with text in different ways . . . But, you’re right, there is nothing that replaces the work of a book – the meaning you create when you read the words and turn the pages.

    Thank you for this thoughtful post!

  8. Laugh-out-loud wisdom from a genius who knows how to relate directly to kids and adults alike. Loved this piece.

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Trackbacks

  1. […] Here is the first of two essays from that fine rag: the recent Zena Sutherland lecture, entitled Why Books? and delivered by Mo Willems. Zena Sutherland was a professor at the University of Chicago and the […]

  2. […] must read: WHY BOOKS? The Zena Sutherland Lecture by Mo Willems. Another gem I found in this month’s Horn Book […]

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  4. […] not directly a suggestion for growing bookworms, but Jen really enjoyed Mo Willems' Zena Sutherland lecture, as reformatted for the most recent issue of Horn Book Magazine. It's about (in a bit of a […]

  5. […] can find the full speech at the Horn Book website here but here’s just a little clip of my favorite […]

  6. […] authors out there for children (and adults who read to children) – has a lot to say about why books.Now, I know this information might reach you a little late. If you’ve already gathered all of […]

  7. […] not directly a suggestion for growing bookworms, but Jen really enjoyed Mo Willems’ Zena Sutherland lecture, as reformatted for the most recent issue of Horn Book Magazine. It’s about (in a bit of a […]

  8. […] blogged about it before but it’s worth mentioning again, this speech by Mo Willems gives excellent advice and inspiration for writers (and […]

  9. […] Why Books? An adaptation of the author’s 2011 Zena Sutherland Lecture. […]

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  11. […] Imagination A book needs us desperately. We have to pull it off the shelf. We have to open it up. We have to turn the pages, one by one. We even have to use our imagination to make it work. So, suddenly, that book is not just a book; it’s our book. Mo Willems (Why Books? essay) […]

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