by Zack Smith
If you don't know the name David Wiesner, ask your kids about "the book where the frogs fly around on lily pads" (Tuesday) or "the one where the Three Little Pigs break out of their story and go exploring" (The Three Pigs). Wiesner, who appears at Quail Ridge Books on Tuesday, Oct.15, has become one of the most acclaimed and best-selling authors of children's picture books, with three Caldecott Medals and two Caldecott Honors, for his left-of-center stories that take a surreal look at everyday objects and classic tales.
Wiesner's latest book, Mr. Wuffles! (Clarion Books, $17.99), is no exception, with a tale that pits a group of tiny aliens against a house cat who's mistaken their spaceship for a toy. We talked with Wiesner about the inspiration for his work, what's drawn him to such oddball tales, and more.
David Wiesner: Let’s hear it.
You have a cat named Mr. Wuffles, and he likes to play with a little toy that looks like a spaceship.
I tried, darn it.
It actually began years ago, when I did a cover for Cricket magazine. It was an alien spaceship, and they’ve landed in the desert, and they’re getting their picture taken, but when you turn out the back cover to see the wraparound image, you see they’re actually in a sandbox in the backyard, and they’re very tiny.
So after The Three Pigs, I wanted to turn that into a book that would have been called Greetings!, and I tried and I tried, because the opening sequence was so wonderful — you followed this alien spaceship coming down onto the Earth, and landing in what looks like the desert, and then this giant hand comes into the frame, and when you turn the page, you see it’s this young girl who’s lifted up a couple of them and you realize the reality is they’re very small and in this sandbox. (laughs)
And then I couldn’t come up with anything else! The only other idea I had was that the aliens were speaking their own language, which were symbols, and the aliens and the girl would have a fun day in the sandbox. I gave it up, did Flotsam, came back to it, gave up again, did Art and Max … and I was drawing in my sketchbook while waiting for my daughter at her music class, and I drew a spaceship with all these little nodules all over it, and I said, “My cat would love to scratch its neck all over this thing!”
That was the magic bullet — the story started to spill out of my sketchbook and I had the story. I no longer had that great opening with the ship in that sandbox, but the story started to flow, in these directions where I never expected it to go.
By the way, I based the cat on my own cat, but he’s not named Mr. Wuffles. One of my son’s friends has a cat that’s named Mr. Wuffles, and I just needed a really silly name that this cat would probably hate. (laughs) “Mr. Wuffles” was perfect.
OK, I was off, but it’s interesting to me that you still have that opening where you have that shock, that shift of point-of-view, but it’s from a human/cat perspective instead of the aliens’.
Yeah, you have that cat passing that row of cat toys, totally disinterested, the tags are still on them, and then you find that one toy, and see the aliens inside. Every story has that moment where it just clicks. I wish I could plan for it, and then I could plan for each book! You just have to keep working and hope that moment comes.
You’ve been doing books since the 1980s — I was wondering if there was a switch that got flipped between the more traditional stories you were illustrating back then, and the more surreal, adventurous stuff you’ve become known for ever since.
No, that’s always been what I wanted to do, and what I’ve always done — even if you see what I was drawing as a kid. The other stuff — I was a working illustrator and I needed money! (laughs) I did textbooks, chapter books, covers, anything that came down the pipe. Getting to do author-illustrated books, you had to work up to that at the time. I did a few picture books for other authors, but getting to do something on my own took a little while.
Some of it was more interesting than others, but everything was a learning experience. Clearly the work that was more interesting to me, and was better as a result — and this was reinforced by reactions from others — was the work I did myself, where I could really indulge my imagination and my surreal tendencies. After Free Fall was published, my first author-illustrated book, I pretty much stopped doing most other work for other authors. For me, telling stories with pictures in a picture-book form is really the thing that’s most exciting to me.
It’s certainly a contrast to look at The Loathsome Dragon, and then look at The Three Pigs, where they go into a story very much like that book, and save that dragon, and I was wondering if you wanted a do-over.
That dragon’s sort of a recurring character in my work — it’s in Free Fall. The Loathsome Dragon was sort of an experiment, where my wife wound up doing most of the rewriting. I was working on that at the same time I was working on Free Fall, and it actually came out first. I worked on Free Fall for about four years prior to its publication, because I was working on other jobs, and trying to make Free Fall everything I could make it. Once it was published, and I had the reaction to it, that was enough to convince me that that was the area where I should concentrate.
And it paid off very well for you.
It did, and I was lucky enough to find an editor who responded to that. When I first pitched it, it was not fully formed, but I was passionate about it, and I was lucky that they saw that and encouraged me to work with it. I’ve continued to work with the same group of people since then. I couldn’t ask for anything more.
And your work has stayed in that very experimental place.
Yeah, and you can get away with that if your story is very well conceived and thought-through. The core is, “Am I telling you a good story?” And if I am, I can push the envelope in terms of how I present it. The thing about a picture book is, it’s short. It requires a form of storytelling that is very quick and concise, and you have to stick with that. As long as that story is there, I can take the reader on any kind of visual journey that I can dream up.
There’s also a very vignette type of quality in your books. That sticks with me because ... well, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 is now in theaters, and it kind of bums me out how they keep taking all these great picture books and explain everything. I could just imagine them doing a movie version of Tuesday and having kids investigate why the frogs are flying around, or aerial dogfights with frogs, and so on. You read the book, and you don’t need all that. Why are the frogs flying around? Because it’s Tuesday.
Yeah! The book leaves so much for the reader to bring to it. It’s a small thing, it’s a short thing, it terms of presentation, but it suggests so much. When filmmakers expand picture books, it often turns into, “We need a moral” or “We need to layer on family conflict,” all this stuff which ... I don’t know. I don’t think kids are really clamoring for that. I think they just want something funny, something fun, and it doesn’t necessarily need to be explained. It just is, and that can be why so many movies of picture books are so ... lacking, let’s say.
What’s interesting about your books, and how I’ve been describing them to others, is that they capture that feeling you have as a kid that “the world is bigger and much stranger than what I see around me in my limited space,” but it’s presented in such a way that even an adult who reads these books are going to be left looking over their shoulder for a frog on a lily pad.
That’s what I wanted to see as a kid, and that’s what I want to see now. There’s amazing people in the picture-book field right now. I love seeing what’s being done — it’s one of the most creative fields around, and not enough people are aware of it. They keep waiting for the next 3-D blockbuster, and right there, in those 32 pages, are more extraordinary things than you’ll see on the big screen for the most part.
David Wiesner appears at Quail Ridge Books & Music to promote Mr. Wuffles! at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct.15. This is a signing line ticket event. For more information, call 919-828-1588 or visit www.quailridgebooks.com.