Twenty years of doodles collected in a coffee-table volume, offering a well from which Willems has indeed drawn more than the importunate pigeon starring in many of his seemingly artless, improbably successful children’s books.
The earlier issues of annual booklets gather witty but conventional New Yorker–style single-panel vignettes of city life and modern romance, one-liners from the therapist’s couch or general sight gags (“The grim reaper at happy hour”). Later, the content becomes less mannered as it broadens into extended plot lines in early versions of Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! (2003) and Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs (2012), experiments in the effective use of page turns and color, a gallery of “Monsters in Underpants” and wordplay in a monologue delivered by a drunken “Belligerent Bunny” (“Olive hue show mutts!”). Though composed throughout with characteristic minimalism (except for a closing section of strip comics), the cartoon illustrations show a stimulating range of experimentation—from scribbles and jagged semiabstracts to urbane tableaux, smudgy rubber-stamp work and balletic, Jules Feiffer–esque figures in “Float.” Along with a preface explaining the Sketchbooks’ origins, the three-time Caldecott Honor winner and two-time Geisel Medal winner provides introductory remarks on events and influences behind each. Occasional sound-bite commendations from colleagues and friends (Norton Juster: “I wish I couldn’t draw the way Mo can’t draw”) would have been better placed on the flaps or endpapers but do enhance the overall celebratory feeling. Eric Carle provides a foreword.
Hilarious to, at worst, mildly amusing glimpses of a comic genius at play. Even the pigeon would agree.