Mo Willems loves books on artists and Genghis Khan – The Boston Globe

When asked how many books he’s published, the prolific illustrator and author Mo Willems doesn’t give an exact number. “Over 50. I love them all equally.” He’s published at least three since August alone: “Doodling 101,” “Opposites Attract,” essentially an art book for the under-2 set, and “Guess What,” a new addition in his Unlimited Squirrels series. The best-selling author has introduced kids to pigeons who long to drive buses and the unlikely friends Elephant and Piggie, and won three Caldecott Medals, the top award in children’s literature, along the way. Willems is a longtime resident of Northampton.
BOOKS: What are you reading currently?
WILLEMS: Someone sent me Ian Nathan’s book about Wes Anderson’s movies. Then I got a book on the recommendation of a friend, “Wabi Sabi: The Japanese Art of Impermanence” by Andrew Juniper. I don’t know too much about wabi or sabi, but it sounds interesting. And I’m always going back to books.
BOOKS: Which books do you spend the most time with?
WILLEMS: Cartoon book and art books. I’m a big fan of Alexander Calder. There’s a great book called “Calder at Home,” which has shots of his homes and studios in France and Connecticut. There’s this great photo spread of him preparing for a retrospective. There’s just this bundle of wire on the floor and he picks it up and it’s his sculpture. Then I have “The Sculpture of Ruth Asawa: Contours in the Air.” She was also a wire sculptor who made these intricately woven baskets that made these crazy biomorphic shapes. There’s a lot of reward in really looking at those.
BOOKS: Any other favorites?
WILLEMS: I have a great Saul Steinberg book called “The Art of Living.” I first saw this book at The Strand Book Store in the East Village in the early ‘90s. It was on the bottom shelf. I would visit this book and read it there because it cost $20. When I got my first job on a TV show I told the head writer about the book and the next day it was on my desk. I’ll let all the independent booksellers know that now I’m quite happy to spend $20.
BOOKS: How else would you describe yourself as a reader?
WILLEMS: I only read nonfiction. I’m a sucker for anything about Genghis Khan. He’s just so cool. I also read a lot of books about science and Roman history, such as Tom Holland’s books. If my friends ask me what I’m reading, they tend to fall asleep before I finish telling them the titles.
BOOKS: What are your favorite books about Genghis Khan?
WILLEMS: Funnily almost all the books are titled Genghis Khan. “Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World” by Jack Weatherford is a more recent one I enjoyed. I started reading about him because I really enjoy books about the Ottoman Empire. I just read Alan Mikhail’s “God’s Shadow,” which is about Sultan Selim. That is an interesting book about the European invasion of the Americas related to the rise of the Ottoman Empire.
BOOKS: What are your reading habits?
WILLEMS: I hate jacket covers. I take them off immediately. Most of my books immediately lose value because of that. I recycle them. I’m green.
BOOKS: Who do you get book recommendations from?
WILLEMS: The writer Kelly Link and her husband, Gavin Grant, have a small bookshop one town over, Book Moon in Easthampton. They know my wife and I so it’s easy for us to get recommendations. One of her last ones was “Draft No. 4,” John McPhee’s book on writing. It’s great.
BOOKS: What kind of reader were you as a kid?
WILLEMS: Peanuts, Peanuts, Peanuts, everything Peanuts. I go back to all my old Peanuts books too, such as the classic “The Snoopy Festival.” I revisit my old Spider-Man books too. I think of Spider-Man as a teenage Charlie Brown.
BOOKS: When parents ask you for advice about how to get their kids to read what do you say?
WILLEMS: My advice is to read. Parents sometimes forget how incredibly cool they are. If you are sitting there reading and your kid wants you to make a sandwich or turn on a device and you say, “I have to finish this chapter first because it’s really good,” that will help.
Follow us on Facebook or Twitter @GlobeBiblio. Amy Sutherland is the author, most recently, of “Rescuing Penny Jane” and she can be reached at [email protected].
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