Experiencing Empathy Through Art With Mo Willems

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Mo Willems; photo by Marty Umans

In just over 10 years of writing children’s books, Mo Willems has become a genuine publishing sensation. His series, including Knuffle Bunny, Elephant & Piggie, Cat the Cat, and The Pigeon, have won just about every award, and more importantly, have earned great swaths of real estate on children’s first bookshelves.

A career retrospective, entitled “The Art and Whimsy of Mo Willems,” at the New-York Historical Society is on exhibit through September 25, and it is a bright, funny appealing look at the work of this rock star of the preschool universe.

Willems wrote comedy for adults before moving into the world of children’s books, and I’m a cartoonist who has recently launched a series of chapter books for kids, so I was fascinated to talk to him about his process. He’s a tall, naturally paternal presence who speaks with gentle humor and kind patience, but also with authority.

I began to ask how he writes for kids, but he quickly corrected me: “I don’t write for kids, I write for people who don’t know how to be embarrassed yet.” And he doesn’t see his subject matter as necessarily directed toward children. “What I’m actually writing about is philosophy. I’m writing fundamental, existential questions,” he says. “’Should I share my ice cream?’ ‘What does it mean to be a friend?’ ‘Where are my boundaries of loyalty?’ ‘Can I drive a bus?’ Socratic, core philosophical questions.”

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He may not be writing “for” children, but he has certainly made a connection with them. There is something about his sublime, simple stories that taps directly into the preschool neocortex. I asked him how he understands small children so well. “Part of it is pure empathy,” he says. “For me, the core realization is that childhood, even a good childhood, sucks. You’re powerless, people tell you when to urinate, they tell you how to do things, and you have very little choice. You could be lifted up and flown into another room, and if you complain, you get in trouble for it… So, for me, that’s the fundamental insight: to be on the side of the kids.”

A wonderful part of the experience of the exhibit is that it shows the progression of how the ideas in Willems’ head make it onto the printed page. For a child who only sees these beautiful, perfect, printed pages in his or her beloved book, it’s thrilling to see the exact preliminary doodles, drawings and drafts that went into that page. This type of process-oriented exhibit serves Willems’ contradictory goals for the show.

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An illustration by Mo Willems

“On one level, I want it to be established and proved that this work is art: legitimate, difficult, non-accidental. And on the other hand, I want to inspire kids to see that is achievable, easy, and worthwhile,” he explains. “The exhibit is not the point. The point is when the kid goes home and starts drawing his own drawings.”

I know Willems just a bit, but I do know that he’s passionate about drawing: He’s not only an incessant doodler, he urges others to draw as well, and makes it a social activity. I was surprised to find out that his belief in drawing goes back to his most fundamental value as an author: Empathy. “Drawing is a physicalized form of empathy,” he says. “The more you draw, the more you empathize.”

 

Willems wants kids to start right away. At the end of the exhibit, there’s a drawing wall, where kids can make their own drawings. As he put it, kids “will be able to leave and say, ‘I have a drawing in a real museum!’”

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An illustration by Mo Willems

And they definitely will. I can’t believe any child can make it through this exhibit and not get caught up in Willems’s infectious enthusiasm for art, creation and expression.

He’s on the side of the kids, and they know it.

To learn more about “The Art and Whimsy of Mo Willems,” visit nyhistory.org!

Ruben Bolling is the creator of the weekly comic strip “Tom the Dancing Bug,” and the author of the science fiction/humor series of books for kids 7-11, “The EMU Club Adventures” (Andrews McMeel).

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