‘The Doing is the Joy’

Colby awards an honorary degree to acclaimed author Mo Willems

Children's book author Mo Willems talks about the creative process with his editor, Tracey Keevan, at the Gordon Center for Creative and Performing Arts. Willems received an honorary doctorate of fine arts from the College.
By Abigail Curtis Photography by Ashley L. Conti
March 19, 2024

Mo Willems looked like he might take flight. 

After President David A. Greene conferred an honorary doctorate of fine arts upon him Monday afternoon, draping an academic hood around his neck, the acclaimed children’s book author, illustrator, animator, and playwright raced around the stage at the Gordon Center for Creative and Performing Arts as if he were channeling a cape-wearing superhero. 

It was kinetic, silly, a little irreverent, and most of all, fun—all of which seemed exactly right for an event celebrating Willems, whose books and beloved characters like Pigeon and Knuffle Bunny have brought joy to people of all ages for decades. 

“Mo Willems, through humor and beloved characters, you illuminate complex emotions and inspire children to read, create, and grow,” Greene said while conferring the degree. “Your exploration of ideas leads to unexpected endeavors in novel artistic forms that connect people together and bring joy to countless lives. With generosity and care, you demonstrate that following a passion in embracing failure is the path to a fulfilling life of meaning and impact.” 

Mo Willems “flies” around the stage after receiving an honorary doctor of fine arts degree from President David A. Greene.

After Willems’ on-stage flight, the president had to add a few words. 

“I’ve given out a number of these in my life, and that’s the first time anyone’s done a full-on dance and run,” he said to a roar of audience laughter. “At commencement this year, for the seniors, keep an eye out for that because we’ll be expecting more of it.” 

The Gordon Center was packed for the gathering, which capped a weekend of appreciation for both Willems and the arts. Special events in downtown Waterville brought 700 fans to a read-aloud from his books at the Waterville Public Library and an “ART-ivity” event with Waterville Creates at the Paul J. Schupf Art Center.

After receiving the degree, Willems sat down with Tracey Keevan, an editorial director at New York City’s Union Square & Co., his publisher, for a conversation that touched on the creative process, the power of imagination, and how he’s built a career that spans multiple modes of creative expression. 

Mo Willems sits on the stage as College Trustee John Lyons ’85 introduces him. Lyons spoke powerfully about how Willems’s picture books helped his son, who struggled to read when he was small. “One of the things that’s so special about places like this, and people like Mo, is that if you give somebody a little bit of a push, and you let them dream, and you tell them what they dream is possible, then they might actually try and do it,” Lyons said. “I think that’s what we’re here to do as an institution and that’s what Mo does every [day].”

“This is the thing I’ve been thinking of recently: I’ve now been doing this for about 12 billion years. I have a lot of published stuff, a lot of TV series. … I would say maybe 10 percent of the stuff that I’ve made people recognize or know,” Willems said. “So you have to give everything you do 100 percent. Everything you have to do, you have to give your absolute best, hardest, strongest to.”

The author, best known for picture books, including Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! and Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale, was the inaugural Kennedy Center Education Artist-in-Residence and continues to collaborate on projects involving classical music, opera, comedy, dance, painting, and more. 

As Willems described his trajectory through standup comedy to animation for TV shows like Sesame Street to writing children’s books, he made it clear that it wasn’t a straight climb to success, but rather a path with many twists and pivots. 

Keevan, his longtime editor, said that she’s continually surprised by how Willems works at creating every single day. 

“And I think you’ve been doing it since you were a little kid. It doesn’t stop for you. You just keep going,” she said. “And I want to dig a little deeper with you about that. What is it that inspires you every day to be creative, and what does being creative mean to you?” 

Author Mo Willems encouraged people in the auditorium, especially the college students present, not to spend so much time on their art or work that they neglect other important things and people.

Willems answered first by saying that there’s an equation to creativity that is luck, talent, and work divided by time.

“You have no control over your luck. And you have no control over your talent,” he said. “Work is the only thing you really can control, and so work is the thing. Always, always work. I have no talent. Seriously, I have a very small storytelling talent. But by and large, what I have that most people don’t is an excess of passion.” 

Because of that, he’s been willing to do the things he loves over and over again, even if the result is not always great, he said. “Passion is a desire to do what you love poorly,” he said. “And if you continue to do things poorly enough for long enough, you will fool people into thinking you know what you’re doing.” 

As the audience laughed in response, one child in the front rows audibly gasped their surprise. 

“I know, it’s weird,” Willems replied. “It’s true, though.” 

Keevan also asked where he gets his ideas, which she said is a question often fielded by creators. 

The audience at the Gordon Center for Creative and Performing Arts included children, students, community members, and more. Many Colby students came because they loved Willems’s books when they were growing up.

“People think ideas are things,” Willems responded. “But ideas are not things. They’re seeds that you grow. And so I have an idea garden, and it’s called a notebook. I write little ideas in my garden, or sketches, or thoughts, or drawings, and I don’t know what they’re going to do.” 

He uses his imagination to water those ideas, in hopes that some will take root. 

“And every now and then some of them grow up and they become beautiful trees, giant, strong, big trees that you can cut down and burn for profit,” he said to laughter. 

Finally, Willems answered audience questions, many of which came from the kids in the room. His last question came from Jae Hyo Michael Chang ’24, who said after the event that he wanted to come because he discovered Willems’s books when he was teaching English to kids in Korea. “You said that you had a struggle in the earlier part of your career. … How did you keep going forward, when the world seemed like it was against you?” 

Willems didn’t mince words in his response. 
“The world seems like it’s against you—because it is,” he said. “The doing is the joy. And so you find a way to do the doing.”