"Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Musical," opening Friday at Theatre of Youth, features a song, "Aggle Flaggle Klabble," sung entirely in nonsense words by a toddler screaming about a beloved stuffed bunny left behind in a commercial washing machine.
The toddler's name is Trixie, and Knuffle Bunny's mastermind is the real Trixie's dad, Mo Willems, who has been delighting children and parents with his award-winning picture books since "Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!" was published nine years ago. (Willems' daughter Trixie at age 4 provided the toddler's voice on the audio book version of the first Knuffle Bunny book.)
Willems, 44, grew up in New Orleans, the son of Dutch immigrants. He studied film at New York University's Tisch school and was a writer and animator for "Sesame Street" before he began creating children's books. He displays his wacky sense of humor in an email interview while on tour in the Pacific Northwest promoting his latest picture book, a hilarious fairy tale spoof, "Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs."
Q. What inspired this Knuffle Bunny story? Did you used to take your daughter to the Laundromat?
A. "Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale" is a completely true story, with the exception of the parts I made up.
Q. And how did it become a musical?
A. The Kennedy Center asked if they could turn it into a musical and I said, "Yes. IF I get to write it." Amazingly, they acquiesced. It's been a great journey and a fun relationship. We're actually working on another project that I'm as excited about as I am not allowed to talk about it yet.
Q. The Knuffle Bunny illustrations place the drawn figures against a realistic-looking background. Can you talk a little about why you like to do this?
A. Since the Knuffle Bunny stories had to feel real, they had to look real. I wanted to contrast the emotional cartoony characters with places and things that felt as emotionally true as possible. The photo collage technique came about as a result of my trying to give the "place" of the book a striking reality. Also, I hate drawing backgrounds .
Q. Where did the word Knuffle come from?
A. "Knuffel" is a Dutch word that means "hug" or "snuggle." As a Dutch-American, I had intimate knowledge of the word, if not the spelling of it.
Q. Do you have a favorite song in the musical?
A. The idea of a central dramatic aria sung entirely in gibberish still makes me giggle.
Q. You just wrote a new picture book, "Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs." What inspired this new book?
A. When my kid was younger, I used to read books "wrong." I'd change a key word here or there for the fun of it. My daughter would either correct me or burst into giggles, two responses that I encourage in all kids. This story is an extension of that. Hopefully, it will get kids riffing on the books they like and creating their own zany spoofs.
Q. Any other projects going on at the moment?
A. October will see the publication of a new Elephant and Piggie story, "Let's Go for a Drive!," and "Don't Let the Pigeon Finish This Activity Book!"
Next year is going to be incredibly busy. It'll be my 10th anniversary in children's publishing, I'll have more books coming out (including one for grown-ups), and a solo exhibition of my drawings opening at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Mass.
Q. Where do you get your best ideas?
A. I get my ideas from Belize. I have to make sure that, no matter how crazy, everything I write is belizable.