Hours before the Saint Patrick’s Day parade was scheduled to march up 5th Avenue on March 17, members of the press gathered in a second floor gallery of the New-York Historical Society to examine an exhibition organized by the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, MA dedicated to the work of bestselling author-illustrator Mo Willems.
Though currently residing in Northampton, Massachusetts, Willems created his iconic characters such as The Pigeon and Trixie while living in Brooklyn, and these characters are dyed-in-the-wool New Yorkers–slightly neurotic, full of chutzpah, yet entirely lovable. The show reveals how Willems’ life and career were shaped by the people, sights, and sounds of New York. The Knuffle Bunny trilogy, for example, is full of photographs Willems took while living in Park Slope, Brooklyn; Prospect Park, PS 107, Grand Army Plaza, and laundromats form the backbone of these decidedly urban tales.
After a short introduction, the author walked us through the exhibit showcasing 90 sketches, animation cells, and sculptures. Early in his career, Willems wrote and illustrated for adults, but ultimately shifted his focus to creating children’s books. “Writing for adults means tracking culture so you can spoof it, which requires a lot of effort on my part,” he explained. ‘With kids, you just have to deal with anxieties, neuroses, and pain, which I am well acquainted with and don’t have to leave my home to discover.”
A finished Willems illustration is deceptively simple, but “being simple is not the same as being easy,” he said as we moved towards a set of preliminary sketches. “Every design needs to be one line away from becoming an abstraction. The characters need to be accessible enough that a five year-old can reasonably copy them, but the images still have to carry emotion and weight.” Willems said he goes through hundreds of sketches for a single book, some of which are on display. “You never know when a drawing is right, but you know immediately when it’s wrong. A reader shouldn’t look at the page and admire the color palette, the page-turn, and the lines. A story is successful if you look at an image and say, ‘Wow, that took him five minutes.’ Then I’ve done well.”
After the tour, my seven-year-old daughter and I asked if Willems would sign three books we brought, and he graciously obliged. While inscribing our copy of The Story of Diva and Flea, his collaboration with Tony DiTerlizzi set in Paris, we asked about his experience living in the City of Lights while conducting research. Once revealed that we spoke French, he began chattering away about the beauty of Paris, and the wonders of the people and things there, much to the delight and amazement of my daughter. It seems no matter where he hangs his hat, Willems finds a way to draw out the charm and wit of his adopted home.
The Art and Whimsy of Mo Willems opens today, March 18, and runs through September 25, with family events, cartoon screenings, daily story times and book signings taking place scheduled throughout. Visit nyhistory.org for a detailed calendar of events.
Be sure to check out Noah Fleisher & Lauren Zittle’s story on Mo Willems in the Spring 2016 print issue of Fine Books & Collections Magazine.
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Reprinted with permission from Fine Books & Collections, Barbara Basbanes Richter, author