Last summer I got super-excited that my former employer, The Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, was partnering with the one and only Mo Willems on an interactive exhibit based on his creations. Willems’ books dominate the top of the Most-Frequently-Checked-Out-Picture-Books list* at the library where I work, so as an objective professional I knew it would excite kids; and as a subjective fan who’s seen a lot of bad Seuss imitations in her time, I’m of the firm opinion that some of the Elephant and Piggie books are unequivocally the most brilliant easy readers since Fox In Socks.** So to find out the author would be here in February to kick off this exhibit, and even host an interview panel for grownups who are interested in children’s books, I was all ready to fangirl out! Then February came along and the rest of life got in the way, so I missed the grand opening. I nearly missed the exhibit. I finally got to the Museum this week, the day before the Pigeon’s beloved bus got taken down for some pre-traveling maintenance. Pittsburgh area people, you’ve got until September 2. Don’t miss it.
But heads up, everyone else: the Pigeon could be coming to a town near you sometime in the next few years. The Kansas Children’s Discovery Center in Topeka will be inheriting the exhibit next month. In January 2019, the Pigeon and friends will arrive at the Glazer Children’s Museum in Tampa, and next summer they’ll be at The Magic House in St. Louis, MO. You can track future appearances at the bottom of this exhibit rental page.
The centerpiece of the exhibit is, naturally, a bus to drive. Several, in fact. The wearable box buses are best reserved for very young children, as my 9 year old discovered the hard way:
But the big photo-op bus, the one that drove away from Pittsburgh early to get ready for the trip to Kansas, is big enough for everyone. It even doubles as a book mobile, with simple seating and a library of Willems favorites inside. Curl up together and read.
If you’d rather be read to, you can hear—or rather, experience—Waiting Is Not Easy! in a small, darkened room labeled “The Wait and See Experience!” nearby. The wait isn’t too long by grownup standards (even grownups with ADHD like me), so your kids will probably manage waiting with Gerald on screen for Piggie’s big surprise, when—SPOILER ALERT!—the stars come out and break free of the screen to fill the whole little room. Even my tweens were awed by the sight.
Elephant and Piggie, my personal favorite Willems creations, have a couple more stations to themselves in the exhibit. One of our favorites was a two-sided telephone booth that changed your voice to either a squeaky Piggie voice or a deeper Gerald voice. You can hear your own voice changed quietly in an immediate echo through your own phone, but it’s best to do with a partner, because their voice, altered accordingly, will sound much more directly on your phone. I heard a bunch of deep but rather out of character for Gerald “OMG”s while my 9 year old was on that end of the line. Apparently she found it pretty stunning.
Gerald and Piggie’s other personal station, inspired by their last book, The Thank You Book, is the Thank-o-Rama center. You can write up a thank you card and post it to the wall beside it. If you aren’t sure who to thank, spin the Thank-o-Rama wheel, which might land on family members, Mo Willems or any of his characters, or one of various community helpers like, to my own great pleasure, “librarians”:
Over at the Pigeon Palace, you can watch a variety of characters in low-tech action, through some crankable flip books and a couple of mirrored zoetropes. The flip books showcase the Pigeon, appropriately, flipping out, and are surprisingly noisy. The zoetropes come with interchangeable half-disks that sit easily below the mirrors, so you can take your favorite character for a spin.
I thought the Laundromat from Knuffle Bunny was incredibly well-designed. The coin slots add to the realism, but no quarters are needed: simply turn the “door” of your machine around, and the light comes on for you to look inside. Buried in the color-sorted clothes are stuffed versions of not only Knuffle Bunny but various other Willems characters. It’s like an I Spy bottle, but easier. Too easy for my tweens, who barely gave it a second glance.
My jaded young ones were also not interested in the collection of large blocks that can be stacked together to make assorted mixed up characters. They also missed the Naked Mole Rat Fashion Show. Dress the flannel board Naked Mole Rats and send them down the conveyor belt runway. Smashing!
But the Pigeon Arcade? There was a challenge for older kids, too. Feed the Pigeon and the Duckling in two carnival-style games. One is a hot dog launcher: two catapults perfectly sprung for sending small foam hot dogs through a couple of hoops—which, for a greater challenge, can be cranked back and forth by a friend while you’re aiming. The other involves a set of pulleys on a board full of holes: use the pulleys to lift a cookie (with or without nuts) past the lower holes and up to the target holes of the Pigeon or the Duckling.
But the most important station is the drawing station, with three different approaches for doing so. You can draw the characters along with a step-by-step video. You can use a light table to trace the Pigeon in various poses.
And in the middle is a table with a roll of butcher paper at one end, stretched out like an ever-refreshable tablecloth, for free doodling. There was no description posted, but I recognized the concept from following Mo Willems on Twitter. He had a habit a few years ago of posting doodles made by his family or their guests at dinner time on their paper tablecloths. Draw together as a family, he encouraged. And the guests at the Children’s Museum were doing just that.
I hope you, too, will get the chance to draw together, whether or not the Pigeon is heading to your neck of the woods after this!
*Neither guess nor exaggeration. I just ran that report last week. Of the 20 most-circulated picture books in the past year, 15 are by Mo Willems. The exceptions are Fancy Nancy, a couple of Eric Carle, a Lego book, and Giraffes Can’t Dance by Giles Andreae, which may be an outlier specific to our library. It’s the favorite of the principal of the elementary school down the street, and she does a lot of proselytizing for it.
**I have been known to force coworkers from the “grown-up” part of the library to read There Is a Bird on Your Head! just so they understand the brilliance they’re missing down there.