2016 is shaping up to be a Mo-mentous year for the author-illustrator who brought us the Pigeon, Elephant and Piggie, and Knuffle Bunny, as Mo Willems opens an exhibit of his artwork, ends a beloved series, and ventures into a new medium – cut paper – in his forthcoming picture book, Nanette’s Baguette, the cover of which is exclusively revealed here for the first time.
“My studio was a mess. There were little snips of paper everywhere, but it was incredibly fun,” Willems said.
Fans will have to wait until October for Nanette but can enjoy “The Art and Whimsy of Mo Willems” beginning this spring. The exhibit, which opens March 18 at the New-York Historical Society, is the latest iteration of a show that chronicles a career that began on Sesame Street and led to a laundromat in Brooklyn and beyond.
The show, which was curated by Nichols Clark, opened at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in 2013 and traveled to Atlanta’s High Museum of Art in 2015. “Obviously, the Historical Society places a great emphasis on all things New York so they took the existing exhibition and amplified it so it had a more New York focus, which was easily done since Mo’s picture book career was launched when he was living in Brooklyn,” said Clark. Special emphasis is given to the Knuffle Bunny books, set in the Park Slope neighborhood, and the pigeon is distinctively a New Yorker – he will even appear as a statue outside the museum entrance, dressed as the Statue of Liberty, but holding a hot dog aloft instead of a torch. “There’s a nice irony that this statue of the pigeon will undoubtedly be the recipient of the droppings real pigeons routinely leave on New York City statutes,” Clark said.
At Willems’s urging, the exhibit is decidedly kid-friendly. Kids (and adults) can learn how to sketch his characters (but don’t let the Pigeon sketch on the walls!) On select weekends, Elephant and Piggie will roam the galleries and pose for photos with fans. Willems narrates an audio tour that explains his process as visitors stroll through the gallery. Even Trixie – Willems’s daughter and the real-life inspiration for the heroine of the Knuffle Bunny books – gets her turn, hosting a showing of Team Mo, a film she made about her father’s life and career later this spring.
“Part of this is about demystifying for kids what a museum is so what we do has to be fun,” Willems said, adding that at the other sites they’ve had to encourage security guards to expand their idea of appropriate behavior. Clark adds, “It’s an added layer of challenge for the security folk because we actually give [visitors] pencils and encouraging them to create.“
Elephant and Piggie Move On
In May, Disney will release The Thank You Book, the final installment in Willems’s acclaimed Elephant & Piggie series. It is the 25th volume in a series that has won two gold medals from the Theodor S. Geisel committee and five Geisel Honors.
“Twenty-five is a lot. I guess if you don’t know how to read by now you never will,” Willems wisecracked. “But seriously, I knew from the beginning that Elephant & Piggie would be my life’s work. The part I have enjoyed the most is where they stopped being my invention and I could just put them in a position – say, have a snake show up – and they would essentially write the story for me without being bombastic or difficult like the pigeon.”
One of Willems’s favorite volumes in the series, We Are in a Book!, actually sprang from an interviewer’s question: “A reporter asked me, ‘What are Elephant and Piggie going to be when they grow up?’ I was flabbergasted. They are grown up. They have fulltime jobs as characters in books. They show up every morning and they pay elephantine taxes every year.”
Though the Elephant & Piggie series is ending, the characters will continue to appear in a new early-reader series called “Elephant & Piggie Like Reading.” In these books, which will release in September with the same trim size and pagination as the Elephant & Piggie books, the pair of friends will introduce kids to their favorite books with story “bumpers” written by Willems. “The idea is that now that Elephant and Piggie are retired they are spending their time reading books by somebody else. So they introduce each book and at the end they comment on why they like it,” Willems said.
The series will launch with two books: one by Caldecott Medalist Dan Santat, called The Cookie Fiasco, and another, We Are Growing! by author-illustrator Laurie Keller.
Finally, Nanette’s Baguette, a new stand-picture book title about a frog’s first solo trip to a bakery, will be released in October. The story, set in a hand-crafted, paper-modeled French village created by Willems, was inspired by what he calls “Trixie’s bike mitzvah,” when father and daughter cycled a thousand kilometers across France, Belgium, and Holland. “I was taking pictures the whole time and wanted to build the village in the style of the little towns we passed through,” Willems said. He constructed a couple of city blocks worth of trees, buildings, interiors, and then photographed everything from a variety of different angles to use as backgrounds for Nanette and the characters she encounters.
The process led him to see many everyday objects in a completely different light. “Toilet paper and paper towel rolls, those are gold,” he said. “I was out to lunch with Tony diTerlizzi and Norton Juster and I saw a little tin that the restaurant used for takeaway and asked if I could have it. No food. Just the tin. I turned it upside down and used it as the base for a water fountain in the middle of the park.”
As with his other, beloved books, Willems believes this new one also has the power to spark his readers’ own creativity. “I’m hoping that it will inspire kids to fold and cut and create their own handmade worlds,” he said. “I’m always hoping my books not only get read but played.”