The Art and Whimsy of Mo Willems

At the New York Historical SocietyMo Willems

Mo Willems’ beloved children’s book characters speak with a distinctly New York accent, from Trixie’s very first Brooklyn “Aggle Flaggle Klabble!” utterance to the Nichols and May-esque comedy duo of Elephant and Piggie to a public transportation-obsessed Pigeon. Currently underway at the famed New-York Historical Society, The Art and Whimsy of Mo Willems is an exciting exhibition that journeys across a career that started on Sesame Street and led to many award-winning books that you’re sure to recognize. New York City Monthly was honored to speak recently with Alice Stevenson, director of the DiMenna Children’s History Museum at the NYHS…

Willems says he likes “to think of my audience, not for my audience”. Can you elaborate on what he meant by this quote and how your exhibit embodies it?

One of the very nice things about this process of working with Mo Willems has been getting to know him and hearing him speak about his work, how he sees [it] as a catalyst for kids to be creative on their own and to really look at the world around them and engage with it.

His Pigeon character is one that he encourages kids to try draw as much as they can and he’s broken it down kind of step by step and he talks a lot about his own artistic process. Sketching every day. Embodying the characters as he works on them. For [kids] to really see the whole experience as one is kind of a jumping off point for them to then be creative.

How will the exhibit reference the strong New York ties that Willems’ characters display?

I think the New York story here is two part. One is Willems himself. He came to New York to go to university and then he lived here for 20 years.

Then in terms of characters themselves, Knuffle Bunny is the most obvious example, it’s based in Brooklyn. The photographs he shot all in his neighborhood in Park Slope. The laundromat was their local laundromat, the local school, the playground. All of these are very recognizable locations and also just the life of the family is kind of a New York family life. Like when you have to do laundry for your toddler in New York, you go to the laundromat.

Interestingly, Knuffle Bunny, first made its appearance in a comic that he did for DC Comics. A collection of people writing about their experiences in response to 9/11, living in NY, and so his is called “Walking to Work on the Williamsburg Bridge”. It’s about three pages, and it’s just the experiences of Mo Willems leaving his wife and very young daughter at home, and so this daughter was Trixie, who then became the star of the Knuffle Bunny series.

It was a wonderful example of how New York, has not just grown him as an artist and as an illustrator, but also he is a New Yorker and he’s someone who, in his work, responds to living in the city and what that’s like on a daily basis.

Do you have any thoughts as to why you think this exhibit is a particularly good fit for the New York Historical Society?

The Dimenna Children’s History Museum is a permanent gallery that looks at about 300 years of New York history through the lives of real people who lived in New York.

It doesn’t feel like dates and names you have to memorize but actual lived experience that you can empathize with.

For Mo Willems, many people associate him very strongly with his characters and his design work, but they don’t understand the piece of the story, which is the New York part.

Is the exhibit organized and grouped in any specific way?

The first gallery introduces Mo Willems. It talks about his experiences in New York prior to writing children’s books. He worked for Sesame Street. He worked for Cartoon Network.

We look at his major series, so that’s Knuffle Bunny, Pigeon, Cat the Cat and, Elephant and Piggie. That’s just a chance to kind of ground everybody in those books.

The second gallery digs into process. Again, for us, a process is a big part of the new piece of the story for this exhibition. He approaches his books as he approached work as an animator, so he has production charts and schedules and he draws a series.

The third gallery is about how his characters grow over time and they embody these lives that kids can engage with. They like to think about how they can become braver or happier or they’re kind of struggling with all the emotions that a young child would be as well.

We’ll also have an audio guide that we recorded with Mo Willems. It’s a chance for us to tell some of the anecdotes of his experience in New York and as an animator.

The exhibit name eludes to the playfulness of Willems work. In your opinion, what are some of the most whimsical works that visitors will see?

I think kids will absolutely love being able to go to our story time area because the story time area looks like the bus from “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus.”