David Wiesner

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Kerstin Long and Jan Miller Burkins were honored to interview author and illustrator, David Wiesner, a three-time Caldecott winner whose much anticipated new book is titled Art & Max.

David Wiesner

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David Wiesner preferred drawing over schoolwork in third grade.

by Jan Miller Burkins

I'm Kerstin Long and I am here with Jan Miller Burkins the Editor of Literacyhead magazine. We are honored today to interview the author and illustrator recently described as "awesomeness between two covers." David Wiesner is a three-time Caldecott winner and his much anticipated new book is titled Art & Max.

Kerstin: Has there ever been a time when your drawing interfered with things in your life or when you became obsessed with it?

David: It's what I have always done from as far back as I can remember. It is what has defined me to my friends, my classmates, my family, and my teachers. It was what I was always doing, and I just kept on doing it. It wasn't the kind of thing that I ever got into trouble over or never skipped my school work because I was drawing, it just was a natural part of what I was doing with my free time.

The one time that it did come in to play was in third grade and my teacher walked by and saw me drawing and sent a note home to my mother saying, "David would rather be drawing than doing his schoolwork." I thought that was pretty perceptive of her.

Certainly, I looked for opportunities to draw and paint as much as I could. It wasn't really until high school until my art teacher, who was probably waiting for someone like me to come along, said in my junior and senior year of school, "The class is doing this, but you can do what ever you want. So basically you can set up your whole curriculum." And to have had someone give me the opportunity to basically be that self-motivated and decide what I wanted to do and carry it out was wonderful and I was able to. I suppose if I had done nothing I am sure he would have changed his mind. But he was completely supportive to let me choose the direction I wanted to go, which was an incredible preparation for art school where working independently is the be-all and end-all, it's basically what it comes down to. So I was very lucky to have been in the situation that I have been in.

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Starting to build again in Art & Max, a metaphor for David's art school experience

Kerstin: So in Art & Max it is our understanding that there is a bit of an autobiographical element to the story. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

David: It's interesting. The more I think about it after the fact and after I have completed it, the more I start to see things that I guess really speak to my own creative process. One of those is that it really deals a lot with what I went through my first year at the Rhode Island School of Design. That was such a momentous time for me. I was finally getting to leave traditional school and go to art school, which once I found out that places like this existed, it was like "Take me there now!" and that was all I wanted to do. And here was a place where all these kids like me were going. It was eye-opening and challenging and transformative.

I really felt like I had to unlearn a lot of what I had picked up along the way growing up and put aside these preconceptions I might have had about drawing in particular and then look with really open eyes and then start to build up again. And this is kind of the arc that Art and Max goes through. There is this peeling away, tearing down, and building up to a new way to look at the world around you, which is really what that freshman year was all about. I don't think that I was really aware while I was doing it. It was afterwards that someone was asking me about it that I suddenly began to go, "Oh, my gosh!" There was a real parallel for that process of just kind of opening yourself up to new ways of looking at the world around you.

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Text in two voices from Art & Max

Kerstin: Looking at things through a different lens makes a nice segue. With the writing process, you really enjoy exploring the boundaries of how words can tell a story. For example, in The Three Pigs you used speech bubbles and traditional narrative language, and in Tuesday there are almost no words at all, and Hurricane has a complete, written story. Art & Max is somewhere in the middle. How is it that some stories demand little or no text?

David: It is the nature of the story and the tool that you need to tell it with. I think that nowadays it is my goal to use as little text as possible and let the pictures tell as much as they can. Obviously, Tuesday and Sector 7 and Flotsam all pretty much rely on just the pictures. In Art & Max, I initially started off having much more conversation between the two characters talking about the nature of art and creativity and things. It seems so didactic and intrusive -- anytime you try to say, "Well, this is what art is," you're doomed. There can be no pinning down that definition. I had to let the experience through the pictures put those feelings across. The dialogue was there to help create the personalities of characters and try to do that quickly and simply and just have as much back-and-forth as was needed to move them through this process.

The Three Pigs was really a lot of fun in that there were these different realities that the characters were moving through. Initially they were in their own story of the three little pigs. But when they come out of that, they are in their own world outside of their stories and then they go in and out of other stories. So I had to have a look for the world outside of the story. So I wondered what it was going to be visually, and also I had to differentiate their speech. So, basically there were rules for their different realities. They also speak in different word balloons, with a different typeface.

Kerstin: It's like they take their different dialogue with them in different ways.

David: Right, but it always comes down to figuring out an interesting visual way to differentiate these things. I had to think about the text, not only what they are saying but how is it going to look differently than it is inside each one of the other stories. With Art & Max I didn't want to have Arthur run in and say, "'Hey, that's great Art,' says Max. 'Watch it!' said Arthur."

I thought, "Well, there are only these two characters. I'll have each one speak in a different typeface, and in a different color." So, again it is a subtle thing, but it is a way to visually relate the type to the character. Arthur speaks in a much more formal typeface with serifs, whereas Max is a sans-serif typeface and he speaks in italics, which kind of emphasizes his hyperactive qualities, so it always comes back to figuring out the visual ways I can tell a story. I think about every aspect of the book.

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The image from which June 29, 1999 evolved

Kerstin: It is a wonderful way to play and experiment. You once said that June 29, 1999 started with a drawing of a floating pepper that you carried around in your portfolio for, what was it, eleven years?

David: Yes.

Kerstin: Did any other book evolve from a key image?

David: Yes. Most of the books evolve out of images. For me the writing process is kind of backwards because I start usually with a visual image and visual idea, and then I have to say, "Well okay. What's the story behind that" So I have a lot of things in my sketchbook that I have not been able to come up with the stories for. It is a bit frustrating and it is often a very lengthy process because things go through a lot of different permutations until I find my way to what feels like the right story for those images.

So Art & Max began with a desire to work in different media. I had been working in watercolor almost exclusively. When I was growing up I worked in oils and pastels and pen and ink and all these different things. And as I began to think about what other medium I could use I suddenly saw this little narrative arc that included them all. Basically, this character, you know, is cracking, and the pastel gets blown away, and underneath the pastel there's watercolor, and the watercolor gets washed away. Then there's a line drawing, and the line drawing disappears. So I saw that and it was, "Well, what am I going to do with that? How do I make a story out of that"

Tuesday began with the frog. I was asked to do a cover for Cricket magazine and they said, "We have a lot of stories about frogs." I said, "That's fine; don't tell me anything else. I'll do something with frogs." And as I was drawing them, I drew the frog on the lily pad, that sort of round blobby shape on top of the flat circular base triggered one of these things -- I just love when it happens -- I was looking at one thing but I saw something else. That's a process that happens during drawing for me. So I looked at that frog on a lily pad and saw a flying saucer. The shape basically reminded me of flying saucers from the 'fifties science-fiction movies that I loved watching as a kid. That's what made me think of the frog on a lily pad flying and it just all flowed out from that. That was the trigger that set that idea in motion.

June 29, 1999 as I said, was just an image that I had in my head of this giant pepper floating in the sky and thinking about that on and off over the years. I would think, "What's the story? Why is that happening" And nothing came along until one day, when I looked at it, and once again I asked the question, "Why"

I always envisioned the pepper floating down to earth. So I thought, "Why is that big pepper floating down to earth" And then, yihay! It was a long wait, but I got a little bit of an answer that said, "Well maybe something went up." I said, "Ooh, that's interesting! What could go up? Well, the pepper came down; maybe a seed went up."

And all of a sudden I saw myself in elementary school with a Dixie cup, putting a seed in and growing those things. I flashed on that elementary science project and the story just began to come together at that point. So there is always a point at which things click, where it just suddenly makes sense and feels right.

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Art & Max image with Cococino brick in foreground

Kerstin: And you know David, not many artists can claim Wile E. Coyote as an inspiration.

David: Oh, I don't know.

Kerstin: The inclusion of the Acme products in Art & Max, there's a fan and a vacuum cleaner and the desert setting, really put me in a Looney Tunes universe. It's a really different landscape for you from your other stories. It is really hard for us to picture a flying fish there, in that particular story.

David: Yes. I was thinking about what the characters would be and in trying to sort of jump start what the story could be. I came around to thinking that I needed to really find the characters before I could understand what was going on between them. I began by working with a generic, cute, roly-poly character. Then I thought about how I wanted a big guy and a little guy, and I played around with a Panda, a regular black-and-white Panda, and then the little red pandas, which look kind of like raccoons. And that wasn't quite right and so, as I usually do, if I am going to spend a year or two or three drawing these characters, I want to find a really interesting thing to draw. I began to think about lizards because there are just so many wonderful wrinkles and textures and all sorts of stuff. I always loved horned toads, although they're actually horned lizards; they're not toads.

When I came around to the lizards, they actually live in the desert. I love the Southwest. I have traveled all over there. I have family who lives there. It just seemed like a really nice place to set the story. It also led me to, unlike many of my other books where there are a lot of different angles and viewpoints that I'm viewing the pictures from, Art & Max is all drawn pretty much from the same viewpoint. It's all straight-on with low horizon lines about a half an inch from the bottom of the page so that there are these big skies. Particularly, with the big skies you get in the Southwest, it became like a big canvas, these large, flat areas of sky.

This is one of those things where a lot of things start to trigger. One of the things is the Road Runner, Wile E. Coyote cartoons. Obviously they're set in that desert environment, but also the Krazy Kat cartoons of George Herriman, which I'm a huge fan of. It's this really surreal, Southwest desert setting. That also was something I was thinking about. On the first double-page spread there is a brick on the ground. Ignatz the mouse is always throwing bricks at Krazy Kat, so I put the brick in there and it says Coconino, which is the county where they live in that cartoon. So that was a little nod to that as well.

And coming into that also were, in particular, the paintings by Salvador Dali, which are also low horizons and big skies with odd, different colors in this sort of surrealistic world he creates. So all of this stuff started to stew together and create the world in which these characters live. The skies, there's clouds and stuff in the beginning, but as the transformations begin to start, the clouds disappear. Essentially they're relatively flat, slightly gradated skies and they move through the entire spectrum.

The normal sky color in their world is this warm green color, but as Arthur gets angry the sky turns orange and then red and then when he bursts apart it then moves into magenta, goes into indigo, back to blues, cool greens, and finally back out to the original sky color. So there is this sweep through the spectrum that happens. And the clouds reappear only at the end when he is finally reconstituted and recreated. So one thing always leads to another thing, which begins to feed into a book as it develops. It is just so exciting to be able to access all this art history of, quote, "high and low art" and mix it all up and see what comes up after.

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Read to find out what this blank page has to do with The Three Pigs.

Kerstin: David your illustrations are so exciting and there is so much to look at. I always find myself going back and just stopping and just really looking very closely at the illustrations. But you actually have some blank pages in The Three Pigs. It's stark white and nothing. So given the fact that your other illustrations are so full of detail. How were these blank pages received by your editor.

David: Well, you know it's always within the context of the story. If there is a reason for that to be, then it's not an issue. That was one of the fun things in The Three Pigs. I had the mistaken impression that because there was so much white space it would take me less time to do the book! Initially when I did the first rough dummy and presented it to my editor, I had the pigs fly off the page with a completely blank double page and then they fly back in from the other side, as if they were out there making a big circle and coming back. The blank double page kind of freaked everybody out from a production standpoint. As the production person pointed out, probably every bookstore that got it would think there was a mistake in the printing and probably return the books. Of course, one part of me said, "Well, gee, if they actually read the story, it would make perfect sense to them." When I have told that story subsequently at bookstores, all the bookstore people have said, "Oh yea, we would have sent them all back." In the final book it took too many pages to make that work smoothly and readably, and within the scope of the story it was too much to spend on that one effect. It was pretty easy to cut back. The finally came pretty close to it. There are a couple of pages there with very, very little on them. It was just too many pages out of the story to get that to work.

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David Wiesner's Caldecott books

Kerstin: Now David you won the Caldecott honor medal on your first endeavor as sole author and illustrator, and that was followed by another honor book and three Caldecott medals, and in our opinion that is truly awesomeness between two covers. David, does the number of awards ratchet up the pressure that you feel? I mean is it harder to write your next book after you've received so many accolades, and does it ever start to feel like work to you?

David: Oh, no. Not work in the traditional sense. It's not easy, but that's what I like about it. It's always challenging, and difficult, and exhilarating and all of those things. You know I think about that, occasionally it will cross my mind. Particularly after Flotsam, it was like "Okay, we've done that three times now. What could I possibly do that could top it? And I'm not looking to go out and say, 'Can I top that?' I'm always just trying to make the best book that I can. It's one of the reasons it takes me a while.

My process is slow to begin with but I am in the luxurious position of being able to explore something all the way. I have been at points with books where I've said, "Well that's not bad. That's okay. But I don't say, "Oh no, because I've won an award I'd better work harder on this and somehow make it better." It's just that I know that the story can keep being pushed and pushed farther to be made better. It's just from my own internal desire to make the best story that I can. So I just come back to the work because that's really the only thing that you can focus on.


All images in this issue of Literacyhead are the property of David Wiesner.