Mo Willems' books come alive as Pittsburgh Children's Museum premieres new exhibit
Mo Willems , a former stand-up comedian and "Sesame Street" writer, says his time on the long-running PBS children's program was like attending graduate school run by Muppets.
"After a few seasons of hard work, I came to the realization that writing for kids was both more challenging and fulfilling than anything I could imagine," he says in an email.
Write he did, creating stories like "Don't Let The Pigeon Drive The Bus!" (a Caldecott Honor book and Picture Book Hall of Fame inductee), "Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale," "I Love My New Toy!" and "The Thank You Book."
Willems populates his children's stories with lively critters that entertain and educate, touching on everything from friendship to manners.
They also give their readers giggle fits.
Beginning Feb. 17, the interactive exhibit "The Pigeon Comes to Pittsburgh: A Mo Willems Exhibit," will bring beloved characters like Pigeon, Piggie, Elephant and Knuffle Bunny to the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh .
The museum and the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art are partnering to co-organize the exhibit, inspired by Willems' art and characters.
"We knew he was interested in doing a hands-on, interactive exhibit," says Anne Fullenkamp, Children's Museum director of design.
It's hoped the imagination and creativity with which Willems infuses his tales will spark those qualities in children of all ages as they move through the exhibit, Fullenkamp says.
Willems visited during the design stages and for a prototype show, she says.
He also created videos to help instruct visitors on his drawing process.
"He's literally in the studio with you," Fullenkamp says.
Visitors can try out a two-sided phone booth (with Willems-designed graffiti) that lets them talk in altered voices; make Elephant and Piggie dance with old-time animation; spin the washing machines and look for Knuffle Bunny, and dress up a Naked Mole Rat before sending him down a fashion runway.
"In prototype, that proved very popular and grew bigger," Fullenkamp says.
"We built two praxinoscopes (for the animation). ... That was really fun," she says.
Happy birthday, Elephant Gerald! We're going to be spending a lot more time with Gerald & his friends when The Pigeon Comes to Pittsburgh! A Mo Willems Exhibit opens on February 17. @The_Pigeon pic.twitter.com/vtC1sNoN6t— Childrens Museum Pgh (@PghKids) February 5, 2018
One can take a ride in Pigeon's bus and act out other book titles by launching foam hot dogs at Pigeon and playing the Plinko game to give Duckling a cookie.
Two local children, Juliet Forrest and Brett Barthelemy, voice Piggie and Elephant in a new, animated film based on the book, "Waiting Is Not Easy!"
@The_Pigeon Juliet was so excited to meet Elephant and Piggie today! Last week, she got to record the voice of Piggie for the upcoming Elephant & Piggie exhibit at the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh. She's so very looking forward to meeting you next month! Happy New Year! pic.twitter.com/au6uvHq5ky— tomthoughts (@tomthoughts) December 31, 2017
"We announced the exhibit last year and we have a lot of interest," Fullenkamp says.
The plan is for the exhibit to tour for 10 years.
Through a child's eyes
Ask their creator a semi-serious question about how he chooses his characters and one receives a mostly silly answer.
"Auditions. I'm constantly auditioning different creatures who appear in my notebook for regular casting calls. Some click right away and are sent to wardrobe, while others linger in the hallways of my mind, waiting for their big break," Willems says.
Another notebook down. Time to put these thoughts on the shelf and let them marinate. pic.twitter.com/lrXgkmWHOg— Mo Willems' Pigeon (@The_Pigeon) January 22, 2018
What does he hope his readers will take away from his books?
"My books are essentially philosophical questions that I'm still grappling with: What does it take to repair a friendship? How does one cope with frustration? Why are people like they are? Why are these chairs so big? Can I drive the bus?" he says.
Willems hears from grateful parents, teens whose illustrations were sparked by a love of his drawings, adults who proudly wear tattoo versions of his characters.
Does he have a favorite response to his books?
"OK, it's the kid who wrote this to me: 'I LIKE YOU BOOK S BECAUSE YOU GET ALL WORKT UP OVR NUTEN.'"
Characters go on tour
Willems jokes that he's excited to see his characters "get a chance to leave the page and play."
"Working with the folks at the Children's Museum has been a joy. They've provided me with a new large, dynamic canvas for my characters to play in. By working together every step of the process, we've been able to test some things about sparking creativity, using drawing as a springboard to story, sharing experiences (with peers and multi-generationally), motivating active play, and the value of immersive moments of quiet. Hopefully, we're doing it in innovative and exciting ways," he says.
"The purpose of my work is to incubate a spark for further exploration and creativity, so, while it's exciting to see kids and families engaged in the exhibits, I'm most excited about how their time at the museum will engender new avenues for creating fun stuff," he says.
"Additionally, the idea that this exhibit will travel after its stint in Pittsburgh is a thrill as big as the country it will tour," Willems says.
First stop on the tour after the Pittsburgh exhibit closes on Sept. 2 is Kansas, with "The Pigeon Comes to Topeka: A Mo Willems Exhibit."
Mary Pickels is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-836-5401 or firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @MaryPickels.