"You may be isolated but you're not alone. You're an art maker. And today we are going to make something together. " Author Mo Willems
Mo Willems is not an internet influencer. A former animator on Sesame Street, he is an accomplished children's picture book author and illustrator. Creator of The Pigeon, Elephant and Piggie, Knuffle Bunny, and Naked Mole Rat, his books are beloved by children, families and elementary schools.
So how has this Kennedy Center Artist-in-Residence, filming from his home in Massachusetts become THE daily hero to millions of children and their parents, quarantined together during the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic?
Beginning on March 16, Mo Willems began posting "Lunch Doodles" at 1 pm each weekday on the Kennedy CenterWebsite.
For about 30 minutes, he talks with children from his Massachusetts studio, shows them his supplies and his drawing archives, and answers their emails.
Willems then gives a brief "doodle" lesson, usually based on one of his picturebook characters.
The daily Lunch Doodles are streamed on YouTube for kids facing months of school closings to return to again and again.
The internet has a vast amount of resources. During the past two weeks, social media has been a frenzy of parents and teachers sharing material for kids, including countless directed drawing activities.
But, the now trending Mo Willems is doing more than solving a boredom problem with children.
When Jimmy Fallon and Lin-Manuel Miranda paused on The Tonight Show: Home Edition to share their kids' doodles, it confirmed that something special is happening here, and not just for our little ones.
In his weekday video, Mo Willems does more than entertain kids or fill up a window of time during endless days.
Instead, through drawing and sharing anecdotes and stories, Willems offers a level of comfort and connection to whole families, reminiscent of Fred Rogers and the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.
It begins with his tone, which is measured and controlled. He moves calmly around the studio. Beyond his voice, there is very little noise, just the scratch of his pen on a pad, or an occasional bark from his canine "Studio Assistant."
He opens each episode drawing the date. When he holds up his sign, it's obvious he is letting each mom and dad see too. This is what day it is. Time is passing. We are moving through this.
Willems further conjures the demeanor of Fred Rogers when he speaks directly into the camera to his young viewers.
Willems speaks the truth plainly. In each episode, he names the reality in which children now find themselves. They are home. Things are different. Things feel hard.
Then he offers hope. This is what we're going to do today. We are going to doodle. Together.
Many of the questions he answers from children have to do with his characters. "What is The Pigeon's first name?" "His first name is 'The.'" Willems answers without a smirk.
And then the poignant inquiry of one young learner, "Are Elephant and Piggie in Quarantine together?"
"They are," answers Willems, "And they have fun and sometimes at the end of the day they get tired of each other."
Many entertainers are now streaming from their homes during social-distancing. We are able to see them in their own spaces, surrounded by family members, an "unplugged" version of usually polished productions.
While their presence is comforting, it is apparent that everything is different. We openly sense that this is not how things are meant to be. We are waiting for the return to normal, with studio audiences, and professional people doing the hair.
But none of us had been to Mo Willems' studio before this difficult season. It's our first time in his quiet, clean space. He has primary-colored file drawers filled with his original sketches, and stuffed animals of Elephant, Piggie, and The Pigeon.
There's one desk in the solitary workspace so he doesn't have to demonstrate how to socially distance. There is no hand sanitizer in sight. Signs of this crisis, for 30 minutes at lunchtime, are gone.
It's as if we can pretend that he's inviting us in. And not because he was forced to stay home, but because he happened to hear that we had some extra time.
Every indication leads us to believe that his life, a life of whimsical creating and diligent, persistent work, is carrying on.
So with Mo's help, we doodle through lunch and believe that ours is too.