In this third part of our interview with artists Kyle Baker and Mo Willems taped during the Brooklyn Book Festival, we discuss writing books for kids, critical feedback, and going out of your way to horribly offend your readership.
The classic image of the cartoonist is one that’s very isolated, sitting at his or her drawing board, not talking to anyone. Now that the Internet affords that sense of instant feedback, do you find that you’re influenced by the reactions that people have toward your work?
Mo Willems: I love bad reviews. I love ‘em. Some kid once said, for one of my animated films that they could make a better film if they stuck a pencil up a monkey’s ass, and let it dance around. I thought about that for a long time, and I thought, “not the soundtrack. My soundtrack would be better.” I love terrible reviews. So, in that sense, yeah, because people can just say whatever they want.
How does a terrible review affect you, specifically? Are you going to go out and change anything? Are you going to make it even more of that thing that offended them?
Kyle Baker: I do that! I do, I have a rule. Anything that is complained about repeatedly, I do more. I’m not sure how it’s affected my work. It occurred to me that people only write to complain. One of the reasons I live to come out these sorts of things and book signings is that it’s the only time I actually get to meet people who like what I do. There’s been a couple of times where, if I look on the Internet, I’ll think the book is a disaster, and then I’ll come out on the street, people say, “oh, that’s a great book!” But I’m the same way. If I read your book [points to Willems], I’m only going to write to complain.
MW: In person though, a lot of people will tell me what my books mean. I tell this story a lot, but the first two reviews I ever got for Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, one person said, “I like this book, because it teaches kids the value of ‘no,’ and when to stop, and not to go too far.” And the next one said, “I like this book, because it teaches kids never to give up.” You know, the complete antithesis from each other. I like that. That’s interesting, because I don’t really know what my stuff is, until people tell me.
KB: One thing I found—I’ve been doing a book called Special Forces, which is about war. That book is designed—because I’m trying to be Joseph Heller—to be offensive. Seriously, there’s a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ guy in there. There’s all of these jokes about Iraq and the military, so I’m expecting all of this hate mail, when I’m writing it, and the only negative comment I go from people—and it’s a thoroughly offensive book, there are kids blown up and everything. It’s terrible. I was trying to be like M*A*S*H*, contrasting the violence and the comedy. It’s way over the top, and all anyone complained about is the naked girl, because the girl is in a bikini. Because again, I was trying to offend people. I decided she was going to be more naked on every page, in the next issue.
MW: It must be hard to fail like that.
KB: It is. It’s hard to find out what people’s hot buttons are.
MW: You should write yourself an e-mail. ‘Dear Kyle, you’re evil. Love, Kyle. PS, pick up some milk.’
KB: I got maybe one of the hatemails that I expected.
Kyle, you’ve done some all ages work, too. The Bakers is a family-friendly book.
KB: Yeah, my family.
And both of you have also done some adult work at some point some point. Is it difficult, especially initially, to get into that world of writing for kids?
MW: I prefer writing for kids. Partially, in a way, because it’s harder, because you don’t have any of those hot buttons to cling to. You’re not going to get a letter from a kid, ‘how dare you do that to a bunny? I love my bunny!’ So you really have to be pure in your comedy and your writing. There are really no cultural modifiers, whatsoever. And I’ve written some adult comics and some adult stuff, and I always fear for getting lazy, because it is easy for me to just sort of follow those paths. That said, I may do more. I’d love to write a memoir called Don’t Tell My Mother I Wrote this Book, but that’ll have to wait a few years.
Is it difficult for you, doing The Bakers?
KB: No, no, but I do a lot of stuff for DC Comics. They do Batman and Superman and stuff. They do a lot of things, except they don’t like most stuff. Over the years—again, when I started, we were distributed in 7-11 and it was 50 cents, they always beat us over the head with, “your audience is kids. Don’t make it too hard to read, and make sure there’s lots of action.” My books still look like that today. What’s happened over the years is that DC’s become more of a nostalgia business. My problem now is not writing for kids, it’s ‘how do a write a Superman story for 40-year-old men?’ These last two movies—they made a Superman and Batman movie that I couldn’t take my kids to. That’s the thing I can’t do. “Write me Batman story that’s inappropriate for children. Go!”