Youthful inspiration

  • Alexis Bacharach<br>Mill Creek Enterprise editor
  • Monday, March 3, 2008 1:05pm

Aura Gardner, 6, reads ghost stories at bedtime, and she never has nightmares.

The stories serve as inspiration for the young author, who already has written and illustrated several works of fiction, including ‘The Haunted House and the Red Ogre.’

“It’s about an ogre who finds a haunted house,” said Gardner, one of several youngsters who showed up Tuesday at the University Book Store in Mill Creek to meet award-winning children’s book author Mo Willems.

Gardner’s mother wanted her daughter to meet a professional author and learn a bit about the business.

While Willems’ stories are more comical in nature than scary, he reveled at the notion his experiences might inspire young people to write and illustrate their own books someday.

The author of two Caldecott Award-winning books is fairly new to the industry. After 15 years in children’s television programming, the Brooklyn native decided it was time to switch careers.

He entertained his young audience on Tuesday, reading the “Knuffle Bunny Too,” a story about a little girl named Trixie who brings her favorite stuffed animal to school and is devastated when another child brings the exact same toy to show-and-tell.

“The knuffle bunnies get mixed up,” Gardner said. “That’s my favorite part. The knuffle bunny reminds me of my Blue Bear, but I never take him to school.”

Feedback from fans like Gardner lets Willems know he’s on the right path.

“I was a huge fan of Charlie Brown, because he was the first children’s book character I can remember that wasn’t blissfully happy,” Willems said. “When you’re young, you read all these books about children who are always happy, and you wonder, ‘what’s wrong with me?’”

Willems looks to the work of his hero, Charles Shulz, to create characters and stories children can relate to.

“Basically, I make my living infringing on copyrighted material,” he told his audience. “And, I encourage all of you to do the same; copy my stories and drawings. Use them to create your own.”

Willems likes to watch from a distance as adults read his stories aloud to children. The different interpretations of the characters make the story unique from one reader to the next.

“I love that,” he said. “It’s also tremendously rewarding to see the children, first-hand, respond to my work.”

Willems feels more at home as a children’s book author than he had in any of his previous professions.

“I always wanted to draw pictures or be funny when I grew up,” he said. “I wasn’t a very good waiter, I didn’t have the dedication to stick with bar tending — but boy, was the money good. Writing children’s book allowed me to draw pictures and be funny.”

To children, like Gardner, whose imaginations are fresh and full of amazing stories, Willems is an important role model.

“Aura’s been writing and illustrating stories since she was 3,” Gardner’s mother Kerianne said. “I wanted her to meet Mo Willems and have a chance to see what it’s like to be an author. That, and we’ve read his books at the library millions of times.”

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