What happens when two acclaimed children’s book authors with close ties to comics team up?
Mo Willems (www.mowillems.com) won six Emmys for writing Sesame Street and created Sheep in the City for Cartoon Network, where he also served as head writer for Codename: Kids Next Door before moving to such bestselling picture books as Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! and Knuffle Bunny, for which he’s received three Caldecott Honors.
Jon J Muth started on such groundbreaking comics as Moonshadow from Epic (later reprinted by Vertigo) and The Mystery Play with Grant Morrison before becoming an award-winning children’s book author and illustrator of such books as Zen Shorts and The Three Questions.
Now, the two have teamed up for City Dog, Country Frog, a funny and touching children’s book about an unlikely friendship and the passage of time. To celebrate this collaboration, we got the two creators on the phone for what turned into a raucous and thoughtful discussion of what led to their working together,
Newsarama: Guys, what led to you collaborating on City Dog, Country Frog? Had you known each other for a while?
Mo Willems: Yeah, we had! We were…I’ll say pals. I don’t think we were buddies.
Jon J Muth: Right. Fond acquaintances, I think. (laughs)
Willems: We were fans of each other. We ran into each other at a bunch of signings and conventions, and we enjoyed each other’s company. The collaboration came about because I was trying to draw this book myself, and I was no good at it. (laughs).
One day, I said to my wife, “Why can’t I draw like Jon Muth?” And my wife said, “Jon Muth can draw like Jon Muth.” (laughs)
Nrama: Jon, what was your initial reaction to this project?
Muth: First of all, because it was coming from Mo, I was interested. Rather than saying, “I’m too busy,” which I was, I read it and it was a great story. I liked the way he was handling what the story was about – how gently it handled some big themes.
I still wasn’t sure if I could do it justice, but there was this frog that kept showing up on my porch, for three nights straight! I still hadn’t said yes to Mo, and on the third night, this frog was on my porch, and I called him and said, “I think I have to do this project, because there’s this frog on my porch, and I think it’s a sign or something.”
Willems: This is a lesson that if you ever want Jon Muth to draw one of your books, all you need is a frog and some Krazy Glue.
Muth: And know where I live! (laughs)
Nrama: Mo, why’d you feel like you needed someone else to illustrate this one?
Willems: Well, to clarify: I didn’t want someone else to draw it, I wanted Jon to draw it. It’s a very specific thing, because I wanted to draw it like Jon draws. I drew the book myself two or three times, but I hadn’t finished it.
I started off doing silly drawings, and then I did photo collage like in the Knuffle Bunny books, but that didn’t work. Ultimately, I think that – besides the fact that my stuff didn’t look like Jon’s – you have to trust the story. The story dictated that I was not the person for it.
On a more cynical note – when people see my drawings, to the degree that they know me, expect a certain amount of irreverence. And I would be leading them down a false path, because while the book has silly moments, it is not irreverent, it is reverent.
What Jon does, irregardless of his technical abilities, is that his work inherently has a reverence. And to be able to start from the first beat, before you even read the first word, and know that this is reverent, means that you read it in a different way, and hopefully I’ve manipulated you into reading it the way I want it to be read.
Muth: What a nice thing to say.
Willems: That’s just how I think. A book just isn’t a book. A book is part of an experience. It’s a dialogue, by definition. The unread book does not work. So you not only need to think of how it’s bound, and what the paper stock is going to be, and what the color production is going to be like, but what is going to happen when it is picked up and goes into the hands.
That’s why the cinema experience is different now that we don’t have cartoons before the first movie, and we have so many commercials before the movie. It cheapens the experience, irregardless of what the movie is about.
You need to think about that experience – when you see the cover, and you get on the couch, and you’ve got your kid on your lap, and you’ve got your cup of tea and you’re comfortable – before you’ve even opened the book, you’ve made a series of decisions that are going to be very important to this dialogue.
Nrama: When I saw both your names on this cover, it threw me a bit, because I think of you as doing different styles of books. But the common ground I found was – there’s some subtlety in both your work. Mo, as you say, your work is very irreverent, but it’s grounded in familiar human behavior, and Jon, your work is more laid-back, but has these touches of whimsy.
Muth: And going back to the Moonshadow. stuff, there was plenty of stuff that I hope was funny. There’s some crossovers, I know what you’re saying.
Willems: And that’s why it was important for me that the book be a square – square books put people at odds a bit, because it’s an unusual format. But that’s sort of embracing the idea that this book is weird, that we’re working together. And I say good, we need more weirdness! (laughs)
Someone asked, “Would you write another book for Jon?” They missed the point completely. The book started out as one thing, and became a book for Jon. You can’t sit down and write a Jon Muth book. Unless you’re Jon Muth.
Nrama: Sounds like you put a lot of thought into the format. Jon, what was your input into the book’s format?
Muth: Standing back and being very happy. It had that feeling from the very first page – the text on one side, the picture on the other – the design is all Mo’s doing. And because I was completely in empathy with the way it was designed, it was even easier to do illustrations for the story.
The story was just there. I knew who the dog was, I knew who the frog was – he’s been on my porch! – but the design element was all Mo. Though if you want to say I did it, that’s okay. (laughs)
Nrama: I was curious if there were real-world references for the backdrop, or for City Dog and Country Frog.
Muth: The frog was there – the one I saw on the porch was certainly the beginning, and the multitude of frogs in my neighborhood helped. But I kept going back to the frog in that great Warner Brothers cartoon, “One Froggy Evening.”
Willems: (sings) “Hello my honey…”
Muth: And the dog was – well, that’s Mo’s dog, Nelson. He’d been looking for a part for a while, and we felt this was it.
Willems: My kid gets in all these books and my wife gets in all these books…
Muth: Nelson called me! (laughs) “Mo’s not putting me in anything! You gotta put me in this book! I can do, it Jon!”
Willems: Like the beginning of The Godfather.
Muth: I was afraid I’d wind up with a frog head in my bed.
Nrama: Where was the setting of the book based on?
Muth: Mo didn’t send me any drawings, but did send some references of places he’d been – this property he owns in the Northeast. He sent photos of places in different seasons, these different spots in the woods, snow covering rocks, and these influenced my choices.
I didn’t use them directly, but Mo started that avalanche, and I kind of used the rest of it thematically through the pictures.
Nrama: How many reference photos did you take there, Mo?
Willems: I took a lot of photos throughout the year. It was a two-year process, because as I said, in the beginning, I intended to do it in a Knuffle Bunny format. So I originally laid it out with photos of different locales in all sorts of seasons. I can’t remember exactly what I sent to Jon, I think it was a very truncated version of that.
Muth: Maybe 30 photos or so.
Nrama: What was the collaborative process like? Was it just Jon drawing the text, or was there some back-and-forth?
Muth: There was no back-and-forth. I think when you get two charged minds together, you almost have to have some space between them. I tried to be true to what I felt Mo was doing with the story, and I just went directly to finishes, and sent those in. And I hope you were happy at the end…
Willems: I was! You know, it’s weird. As a writer, you want to go in there and say, “Wait, wait, before you start, could you do this…?” But as an illustrator, I don’t want anyone looking down over my shoulder, because they may not understand where that drawing is in context.
Having been an illustrator, I was very, very conscious of saying, “Once I hand this in, that’s it.” And Jon was very forward about saying, “You get what you get, and don’t get upset.” (Muth laughs) That’s the risk that you take!
And part of that was terrifying, but part was very liberating, because as Jon says, I was very involved in the design of the book. As we got down to brass tacks, there were some aspect of the book I wasn’t happy about, and Jon helped with some back-and-forth with various designers here.
The question Jon asked me is, “As a friend, and as an artist, do you trust me? And if the answer is yes, I’m relieved of a great burden.”
Nrama: What have you guys learned from working with each other?
Muth: It was great fun. I imagine the things I learned from this will be the kind of things that unfold over the making of my next 20 books. Mo has a way of taking a theme, I think, that could be heavy-handed, and he just bumps up gently against it in a way that’s very attractive, and I’d like to find it in my own writing.
Willems: That was good! (laughs) For me, I have great respect for people who, quote, “just write books.” It is much harder than writing and illustrating books. I change the words in my books up until the final printing. Often, even in a galley, I’ll say “I need to move this word from this page.” I never have to finish a manuscript and say, “That’s done.”
I have great, great respect for people who just write these things. It’s a different skill set than making books, which is what I’ve done before.
Nrama: Now, the $64,000 question: Will you two crazy kids be collaborating again in the future?
Muth: We don’t have any plans to at this point.
Willems: I think the answer to that is it depends on the story.
Willems: It really, really depends on the story. I can guarantee you that I will not not ever work with Jon Muth again. (laughs)
In part 2, Willems and Muth explain why their children’s books are comics, Willems’ never-released project from DC, and what’s next for both of them.
City Dog, Country Frog is in stores now.