The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library is acquiring the papers of author and illustrator Mo Willems, the award-winning creator of some of the most beloved characters in contemporary children’s literature, including Elephant and Piggie, Knuffle Bunny, and the irascible Pigeon.
Willems’ original sketches, notebooks, and book drafts will join a growing archive at Yale documenting the reading and imaginative lives of American children.
“Finding a home for my drawings within a collection that is as deep, diverse, and inspiring as the Beinecke’s is equal parts flattering and daunting,” Willems said. “It is my hope that my work, both preliminary and final, can be of some small use in answering questions about the process of creating children’s books and how it has changed, and not changed, over centuries of publishing.”
Willems, 46, began writing for children as a staff writer for “Sesame Street,” where he spent nine years and earned six Emmy Awards. His first publication for children — “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!” — was named a Caldecott Honor Book in 2004. Since then, he has created a cast of memorable characters that have made him one of the most recognized talents in the world of children’s literature. “Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale,” another Caldecott Honor Book, has been made into a successful stage musical, and the “Elephant and Piggie” series has been praised by Kirkus Reviews for its “snappy pacing and wry humor.” The New York Times Book Review has placed the Pigeon in “the pantheon of great picture book characters.”
“Mo Willems’ characters and stories will teach children and charm parents for generations to come. His papers provide remarkable insight into his creative process and singular imagination,” says Timothy Young, the library’s curator of modern books and manuscripts. “We are extremely excited to welcome this archive to the Beinecke Library’s collection of children’s literature — but we won’t let the Pigeon touch the Gutenberg Bible!”
The archive thus far consists of a selection of notebooks in which Willems works through book ideas, manuscript “dummy” books for several Elephant and Piggie titles (including the original artwork for “I am Invited to a Party!”), notes, drafts and production material for the premiere production of “Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Musical”; storyboards for animated series; early notebooks (published as “You Can Never Find a Rickshaw When it Monsoons”); and copies of all his published books up to 2012. Future additions will add archival material related to other well-loved books and papers documenting his career at “Sesame Street.”
The Mo Willems papers join a rapidly growing collection of archives, books, and original art related to children’s literature at Beinecke Library. While Yale University has long held an extensive group of primers and educational books for children, the addition of the Betsy Beinecke Shirley Collection of American Children’s Literature (a gift of more than 15,000 books and hundreds of original documents and artworks over the past 25 years) has given the Beinecke Library a new stature among research institutions that gather and catalogue children’s literature. In the past decade alone, the library has acquired the papers of renowned children’s book authors Ingri and Edgar Parin D’Aulaire, Lillian Hoban, Karla Kuskin, Miriam Schlein, and Harvey Weiss.
The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library is one of the world’s largest libraries devoted entirely to rare books and manuscripts, and is Yale's principal repository for literary archives, early manuscripts, and rare books. Researchers from around the world use the Beinecke’s collections to create new scholarship.