April 24, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

The Art and Whimsy of Mo Willems Lands in Manhattan 

Photo: Jo Chappman

Photo: Jo Chattman

Three-time Caldecott Honor recipient Mo Willems joins the ranks of Ludwig Bemelmans, Ezra Jack Keats, and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in having an exhibition at a New York City museum. The Art and Whimsy of Mo Willems runs until September 25, 2016, at the New-York Historical Society Museum and Library.

The exhibit, which was organized by the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, is a slightly scaled-down version of the recent one at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. The 90 works on display in New York highlight Willems’s life and career in the Big Apple and how the city influenced the creation of his characters, such as Pigeon and Knuffle Bunny.

One addition that was not in Atlanta is “Walking the Williamsburg Bridge to Work,” a graphic short story in which Willems narrates his personal experience of 9/11, created for DC Comics. Also new to this exhibit are drawings from The Thank You Book (Hyperion), the 25th and final entry in the “Elephant and Piggy” series.The title, due in May, “was born from a real gratitude toward my readers,” Willems explains.  Every secondary character from the series makes a farewell reappearance.

There is a distinct New York City flair to the exhibit, with an image of Pigeon dressed as the Statue of Liberty holding a hot dog. The logo for the exhibit, on banners hanging from the lampposts all along Central Park West as one approaches the museum, bears a city bus.

Photo: Marty Umans

Photo: Marty Umans

In opening day remarks, Willems shared that his publisher thought Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale (Hyperion, 2004) too urban. The fear was that suburban and rural readers would not relate to losing a stuffed animal in a laundromat. (The book, set in Park Slope, Brooklyn, depicts Prospect Park and Grand Army Plaza, two of the borough’s more famous landmarks.) Willems went on to thank the organizers for an exhibit that was filled with “wit, fun,and gravitas.”

During a press tour led by Willems, he stopped at an illustration for Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed (Hyperion, 2009). He told the group that Charles Schulz was his childhood hero. So much so that as a child, he wrote the cartoonist a letter asking, “Can I have your job when you are dead?” In adulthood, he met Schulz’s widow, Jean, who gave him pen nibs, with which he drew the Naked Mole Rat book.

2 DontLetPigeonDriveBus-2

It’s Willems’s wish that visitors young and old go home with the urge to draw. The museum has arranged a series of “Mo Willems Sketching Tours” during the run of the exhibit. Don’t Let the Pigeon Draw in the Galleries! is geared toward teaching kids and adults how to sketch the illustrator’s beloved characters.

In the extremely child-friendly exhibit, a bus serves as a reading area and a New York cityscape adorns the gallery walls. In the pop-up Moseum Shop, visitors can purchase a 40-page, full-color program, as well as Willems’s books and character dolls.




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Rocco Staino About Rocco Staino

Rocco Staino @RoccoA is the retired director of the Keefe Library of the North Salem School District in New York. He is now a contributing editor for School Library Journal and also writes for the Huffington Post.



  1. Barb Gogan says:

    Who is Piggy?

    Do you mean Piggie?