It’s a bit funny to imagine that such prodigious personalities as Pigeon, Elephant and Piggie, Naked Mole Rat, and Knuffle Bunny, all have the same roots: not only from the mind of author-illustrator Mo Willems, but in the museums, brownstones, and pigeon-populated parks of New York City. The maestro himself led a press preview tour this Thursday morning of a new exhibition, “The Art and Whimsy of Mo Willems,” on display at the New-York Historical Society from March 18 to September 25. The collection features 90 works by Willems, including preliminary sketches, animation cels, and sculptures. The exhibition was organized by the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, located in Amherst, Mass.
Though Willems is a New Orleans native (and he now lives in Massachusetts), he spent many formative years in New York City and still considers himself a New Yorker. During the tour, Willems shared how New York and New York museums, which he considered to be a refuge, “super informed my work.” As such, Willems announced how “overjoyed” he is to see his work on display at one such institution. Willems jokingly shared that his goal for the exhibition is “oxymoronic. I want you to see how great I am and how hard it is and how you can never remotely do anything like this. But I also want you to see how easy it is.” He hopes that visitors to the exhibition are inspired to create their own art and emphasized how his work is “not to be looked at but to be played.”
In addition to the many pieces of art, wall relief figures of Willems’s characters offer photo opportunities, and at the center of the exhibition floor is an installment of a bus, complete with Pigeon sitting expectantly in one of the back seats. Visitors are welcomed to take the helm or recline on the seats, reading copies of Willems’s books. There’s also a gift shop at the rear of the exhibition, devoted solely to Mo Willems merchandise (and which may lead visitors of all ages to make a bee-line for the stuffed Knuffle Bunnies).
Willems, whose career began as a sketch comedy writer for adults (his credits include writing for Beavis & Butt-Head), discovered his affection for writing for children during his years at Sesame Street. One of his frustrations with writing comedy for adults, he shared, is the need to track trends in popular culture, which interested him very little. He discovered, in creating material for kids, that the work came much more naturally. All he needed to do was tap into “anxiety, neurosis, and pain, which are issues I’m very acquainted with and which don’t require me to leave my home,” he joked. Willems still does write for adults sometimes; art from his graphic short story about his personal experience during September 11, “Walking the Williamsburg Bridge to Work,” is on display. That New York story actually helped lay the groundwork for another one, much more familiar to young readers: “It was the intro to the Knuffle Bunny world,” he said.
It may seem counterintuitive, but much of Willems’s creative process involves manipulating his work until it achieves an air of “simplicity,” he said. Yet, “being simple is not the same as being easy.” However basic or simple a line drawing may appear, each frame must still “carry emotion and weight,” he explained, a task that takes time and concentration. The exhibition makes clear how many sets of revisions Willems’s sketches go through, while offering a peek at the evolution behind familiar characters from their earliest stages. For each final image that readers see in a book, “I do many, many drawings,” he said. He also sees writing and drawing as being in close communication with one another: “Drawing is a type of writing and text is a type of drawing,” he said.
Winding through the exhibit, Willems spoke to his love of “line,” and its importance in “evoking the emotion of the moment,” an effect achieved through trial, error, and taking into careful consideration elements of story and character. Willems pointed out earlier drafts of Leonardo, the Terrible Monster (2005), which he explained weren’t working for his editors. He realized that he was using a line that was too overbearing for the type of character Leonardo is – a monster who is totally “ineffective at his work.” Also, his earlier monster prototype had fully grown horns, a detail at odds with his timid, unfledged nature. Willems replaced the horns with stubs, to suggest the monster’s “adolescence” and “his potential rather than fulfillment.” Of course, this is the sort of visual “manipulation” that, if an illustrator has done the job right, “you shouldn’t notice.” Willems pointed out scenes on display from Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale (2004), which was written at a time when “there weren’t many urban picture books.” The story, which was based on his daughter Trixie’s obsessional love for her stuffed bunny, features Brooklyn-centric photo-collage artwork. The first book was followed up by Knuffle Bunny Too: A Case of Mistaken Identity (2007) and Knuffle Bunny Free: An Unexpected Diversion (2010). For that book, Willems needed to get a photograph of airport security. Post 9/11, it was quite the task. (Through a series of auspicious circumstances – and the help of then National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, Jon Scieszka, Willems got his photo.) The Knuffle Bunny books are closely tied to Willems’s life with his family while they were living in their Brooklyn brownstone and to the stages of his daughter’s early life. He feels that they are the sorts of time capsule books that older reader might reach for to find out “what was I like when I was little?”
Whether his readers are Brooklyn kids or not, Willems explained that his picture books aren’t complete without their participation. As characters like Pigeon and Elephant and Piggie ask for reader involvement in the storytelling, Willems assesses that “the audience writes 51% of the book.” Speaking of Elephant and Piggie, whom Willems notes “learn something in every book” yet see no actual developmental progression, these two characters are soon to star in their final outing, The Thank You Book, which releases in May. But as one chapter closes, another opens. Specifically, for his character Naked Mole Rat, Willems informed the group that he is currently at work on writing a stage production to star the snappily dressed rodent: Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed: The Rock Experience. World, get ready.