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The New Charles Schulz? How to Experience the Art & Whimsy of Mo Willems

Do you have a small child? Or can you borrow one for an hour or two? If so, run, hop, skip, jump, flap, slither, flutter, or crawl over to the New-York Historical Society to see the current exhibition The Art and Whimsy of Mo Willems.

If you stopped reading picture books prior to 2003, you may not be familiar with Mo Willems, or his most famous creation, the Pigeon. The Pigeon made his first appearance in the now classic Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! and has since played a starring role in eight more publications. (The reader with a keen eye will notice that he’s also to be found hidden somewhere or other in all of Mo Willem’s other books, as well.)

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Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! Published illustration for “I’ll be your best friend! / How ‘bout I give you five bucks? / No fair! / I bet your mom would let me.”, © 2003 by Mo Willems. Hyperion Books for Children, 2003. Digital print 9 x 9 in. Reproduced with permission of Hyperion Books for Children.

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If you’re new to this world, you’re in for a treat. If you’re already familiar with this work, you’re also in for a treat, because this is a great look into Willems’ creative process. There’s original artwork, preliminary sketches, a giant bus perfect for little ones to enjoy (just don’t let the Pigeon drive it out of the historical society!), work from Willems’ earlier career in children’s television, and an incredibly moving graphic short story, Walking the Williamsburg Bridge to Work, taking the adults in the room back to the September 11th attack on New York City. You can also get a nice look at the 25th and final book in the Elephant and Piggie collection, The Thank You Book, which comes out on May 3rd.

Mo Willems’ books are very well done, I think largely because he has a very good memory…a grasp on what childhood is really like that eludes many of us. Of course there’s joy and friendship and love of family, but there’s also a lot of frustration, confusion, and anxiety. Willems was a big fan of Charles Schulz and Peanuts when he was a boy, and it shows. His work is similar in its seeming simplicity, and its wisdom and emotional complexity.

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Knuffle Bunny, A Cautionary Tale. Published illustration for “As soon as Trixie’s mommy opened the door, she asked, “Where is Knuffle Bunny?”, © 2004 by Mo Willems. Hyperion Books for Children, 2004. Digital print 13 3/4 x 29 13/16 in. Reproduced with permission of Hyperion Books for Children.

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If you want to embarrass yourself by weeping in public, read the Knuffle Bunny books. Knuffle Bunny Free is the modern version of The Velveteen Rabbit or the last chapter of The House at Pooh Corner when Christopher Robin says goodbye to Winnie the Pooh. Sunrise, Sunset. Sniff. (Perhaps it’s better to buy them there and read them at home.)

While you’re book shopping, you can also buy some cute t-shirts for your young companion, or one for yourself. Our your very own Knuffle Bunny to take home. Just don’t leave it at the laundromat.

The Art and Whimsy of Mo Willems will be open through September 25th.

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Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.

Laura can be contacted at laura@newswhistle.com

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Lead-In Image: Mo Willems with Pigeon; Courtesy of Photographer Marty Umans and the New-York Historical Society

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