Exhibit | January 22, 2016

"The Art and Whimsy of Mo Willems" Opens at the N-YHS in March

New York, NY - January 2016 - This spring, the New-York Historical Society will celebrate Mo Willems’ beloved children’s book characters, including The Pigeon, who is bus-obsessed; comedy duo Elephant and Piggie; and famed Brooklynites Trixie and Knuffle Bunny. On view March 18 through September 25, 2016, The Art and Whimsy of Mo Willems will follow a multifaceted journey across a career that started on Sesame Street and led to award-winning books like Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! (2003). Organized by The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, MA, and recently on view at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, GA, the New-York Historical Society’s unique presentation of the exhibition will highlight particular elements of Willems’ life and career in New York to show how the city influenced the creation of his iconic characters. 

“Mo Willems’ work boldly and artfully melds the humor and wonder of youth with a complex understanding of the human experience, so it speaks to readers of all ages,” said Louise Mirrer, President and CEO of the New-York Historical Society. “The Art and Whimsy of Mo Willems reveals how Willems’ personal experiences in New York inspired his writing. We look forward to celebrating both his work and the city as artistic muse.”

The exhibition will bring together approximately 90 works from some of Willems’ most popular series, as well as selections from stand-alone classics such as Leonardo the Terrible Monster (2005) and That Is NOT a Good Idea! (2013), featuring original art, preliminary sketches, animation cels, and sculptures. The exhibition will present Willems’ inspiration, unique process, artwork, and characters in an immersive and child-friendly space, featuring an imaginative New York cityscape on the gallery walls, two reading areas with copies of his books for browsing or special reading events, and a family audio guide narrated by Willems.

Exhibition highlights will include:

  • Animation cels and sketches from Willems’ early projects, including a student film created at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, as well as professional work for Sesame Street, Sheep in the Big City, and other television shows
  • “Walking the Williamsburg Bridge to Work,” a graphic short story in which Willems narrates his personal experience of 9/11
  • A video about Willems’ process of creating memorable characters like The Pigeon, Elephant and Piggie, Cat the Cat, and Knuffle Bunny, alongside preliminary sketches, pitch copies, dummy books, and production workflow charts as well as final drawings and published illustrations
  • An early dummy book of Knuffle Bunny, depicting the stuffed animal as a bear, not a bunny
  • Wire sculptures and other personal work
  • Works that creatively address the emotional lives of his characters—and, by extension, his young readers—such as the importance of self-exploration and personal expression in Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed (2009) and kindness in the face of opposition in Edwina, the Dinosaur Who Didn’t Know She Was Extinct (2006)
  • Illustrations from The Thank You Book, the finale to the Elephant and Piggie series, due to appear in June 2016

Support for this exhibition has been provided by Disney Publishing Worldwide.

Programming & Publications

Family programming for The Art and Whimsy of Mo Willems will include two large-scale family weekends in March and June, daily storytimes, meet and greets with the Elephant and Piggie characters, private family brunches, birthday parties, and cartoon screenings throughout the summer. Highlights include Mo Willems reading from I Really Like Slop! and Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale as well as a book signing on Friday, March 18. Willems and his daughter Trixie will co-present her film Team Mo! on Friday, June 3.

The exhibition is accompanied by a 40-page, full-color catalogue that will be available for purchase along with a selection of Willems’ books and merchandise in a special pop-up store at the New-York Historical Society.

About Mo Willems

The New York Times best-selling author and illustrator Mo Willems began his career as a writer and animator for Sesame Street, where he garnered six Emmy Awards for his writing. During his nine seasons at Sesame Street, Willems also served as a weekly commentator for BBC Radio and created two animated series, Nickelodeon’s The Off-Beats and Cartoon Network’s Sheep in the Big City. While serving as head writer for Cartoon Network’s number one-rated show Codename: Kids Next Door, Willems began writing and drawing books for children.

His debut effort, Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!, became a New York Times best seller and received a Caldecott Honor in 2004. The following year Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale was awarded a Caldecott Honor. The sequel, Knuffle Bunny Too: A Case of Mistaken Identity, earned Willems his third Caldecott Honor in 2008. In addition to picture books, he created the Elephant and Piggie series for beginning readers, which has received two Theodor Seuss Geisel Medals and five Geisel Honors. Willems’ drawings and sculptures have been exhibited in numerous galleries and museums across the nation. “Walking the Williamsburg Bridge to Work,” his graphic story about his family experiences during 9/11 for DC Comics, resides in the Library of Congress’ permanent collection. Willems wrote the script and lyrics for Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Musical and Elephant and Piggie’s We Are in a Play!, both commissioned by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. His monumental sculpture The Red Elephant can be viewed in the courtyard of The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. Willems lives in Massachusetts with his family.

About the New-York Historical Society and the DiMenna Children’s History Museum

The New-York Historical Society, one of America’s preeminent cultural institutions, is dedicated to fostering research and presenting history and art exhibitions and public programs that reveal the dynamism of history and its influence on the world of today. Founded in 1804, New-York Historical has a mission to explore the richly layered history of New York City and State and the country, and to serve as a national forum for the discussion of issues surrounding the making and meaning of history.

The DiMenna Children’s History Museum is a museum-within-a-museum that explores New York and American history through the eyes of children of the past. Occupying the New-York Historical Society’s entire lower level, it includes character-based pavilions, the Barbara K. Lipman Children’s History Library, interactive exhibits, and games. The DiMenna Children’s History Museum encourages children to identify with the people whose enterprise and creativity changed the course of our history. It also hosts a series of family programs, from Sunday story hours to arts and crafts. All ages can enjoy and learn in the DiMenna Children’s History Museum, but the exhibits are targeted at age 8-13.