Guest Blogger: Darlene Hellenberg
(Note: Darlene is graduating from the School of Library and Information Science next weekend. Congratulations, Darlene!)

Like many artists before and after him, David Wiesner got in trouble for drawing in school (Wheeler, p. 8, 2005). One teacher in particular got very angry with David for how he spent his time in class and sent home a note to his parents (p. 8, 2005). Fortunately for David, his parents never discouraged his artistic ability (Cummings, p. 85, 1992). As he himself states, “I think that I always wanted to become an artist. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t drawing and painting pictures” (Cummings, p. 84, 1992).

Born in 1956, in New Jersey, David is the youngest of five children (Wheeler, p. 6, 2005). David got hand me down art supplies from his brothers and sisters and he began “to draw at a very young age” (p. 6, 2005). David’s childhood past time continued to be a source of enjoyment for him. He says, “As I got older, I began copying pictures: cartoons, comic books, and magazine illustrations” (Cummings, p. 85, 1992). Wiesner was especially influenced by pictures of dinosaurs that he redrew over and over and a TV program called “You Are an Artist” (Cummings, p. 85, 1992). He was also influenced by the wordless sequences of pictures in the comics like Nick Fury and Mad magazine (Marcus, p. 39, 1998).

After graduating from high school in 1974, Wiesner studied at the Rhode Island School of Design (Wheeler, p. 10, 2005). “At RISD, Wiesner did not know at first what kind of art he wanted to do professionally” (Marcus, p. 39, 1998). Initially, he thought he might design the covers for science fiction books (Marcus, p. 39, 1998). When a fellow student informed him that two of his favorite science fiction writers also illustrated children’s books, Wiesner began considering the idea (p. 39). Then Trina Schart Hyman, art director of Cricket, asked him to illustrate a cover for the magazine (Marcus, p. 39, 1998). This project solidified his interest in illustrating for children, “In 1980, he was hired to do the illustrations for two children’s books” (Wheeler, p. 13, 2005).

Since Wiesner started illustrating for children’s books he has been well received by critics and readers alike. “His books have been translated into more than a dozen languages and have won numerous awards in the United States and abroad” (Houghton Mifflin, 2011). Three of the books Wiesner wrote and illustrated, Tuesday, The Three Pigs, and Flotsam have won the Caldecott Medal (Houghton Mifflin, 2011).

Wisner’s book Tuesday, inspired by the cover he created for Cricket, “exhibits one of Wiesner’s favorite actives. He loves taking everyday things and turning them into fantastic stories” (Wheeler, p. 4, 2005). Wiesner “creates the kinds of books he would have liked when he was a child… (his) detailed, funny illustrations keep young readers entertained for hours” (p. 4, 2005).

To create his fantastic paintings, Wiesner chooses to work in watercolor: “Wiesner uses many brilliant colors in his books. Watercolor is his favorite way of creating pictures” (Wheeler, p. 17, 2005). If he chooses to create an illustration that is black and white, then he uses pencil or charcoal (Cummings, p. 87, 1992). It generally takes him a few years to create each of his books (Houghton Mifflin, 2011). He creates many versions of each picture and revises them until “the story line flows smoothly and each image works the way he wants it to” (Houghton Mifflin, 2011).

When asked where he gets his ideas from Wiesner said, “I get ideas from many different places, often while thinking about an object or animal or place. I try to picture the thing in a new way or I see it doing something impossible” (Cummings, p. 87, 1992). In the book Tuesday, Wiesner imagined what would happen if frogs could fly around on lily pads. To help illustrate this book and others, Wiesner creates three-dimensional models of objects he can’t observe in real life (Houghton Mifflin, 2011).

Since he began his career as a children’s book illustrator Wiesner has illustrated his own books and books for other writers. He collaborated with his wife and created a retelling of an old folktale called The Loathsome Dragon. In this example of Wiesner’s early work published in 1987, Wiesner does not use any of the fantastical images that earned him wide acclaim. However, “book critics liked its enchanting artwork” (Wheeler, p. 13, 2005).

This retelling of an English folktale is rather straight forward. The text and the illustrations work together to move the story along. Wiesner uses watercolor paintings to show the transformation of a beautiful princess into a terrible dragon. Wiesner’s color choices are soft and almost a little hazy. They help to create the fairy tale land in which the story takes place. The illustrations in this story have a wide scope. There is not a lot of intricate detail. This creates a good balance between the words and pictures. In his later illustrations there is a significant amount of detail, most likely because his books have little or no text.

While it is easy to see that Wiesner is a talented artist the illustrations in this book aren’t as appealing as the artwork in his other books. The Loathsome Dragon is an entertaining folktale and the illustrations are lovely. However, they lack the tongue and cheek quality of the illustrations in his later work.

In Night of the Gargoyles by Eve Bunting published in 1994, Wiesner uses pastels to illustrate what happens when the gargoyles wake up and leave their perches. The illustrations in this book are bathed in a soft gray light and shadows creep from page to page. This group of gargoyles is a rowdy bunch and they are eager to explore the night after a long day of remaining motionless. Bunting tells the story in a poem. The text is sparse and Wiesner’s illustrations perfectly pick up the fun and tumble of the words.

Wiesner’s attention to detail and the fantastical images of the gargoyles, each one different from the next, makes this story jump off the page. The reader is captivated, entertained, and a little scared all at the same time. The pastels used help to blend away any distinct lines in the drawings and help to create a world basked in moonlight. While The Loathsome Dragon was well illustrated, the artwork in Night of the Gargoyles perfectly depicts the text and stands on its own.

Published in 1991, Wiesner won his first Caldecott Medal for the book Tuesday. This story, though virtually wordless, shows the reader what takes place on one particular Tuesday evening. Inspired by his cover art for the magazine Cricket, Wiesner couldn’t resist turning the picture of frogs floating into the air on lily pads into a complete story. In order to create the pictures in this story, Wiesner “studied photographs of frogs and made a clay model of one” (Wheeler, p. 18, 2005). The book takes the reader through the night as the frogs rise up out of the pond on their floating lily pads and then fly through the little town nearby.

The illustrations are charming, funny, and pure fantasy. The expressions on the frogs’ faces perfectly depict the action taking place in each illustration. While there are a few words in this book, the illustrations are so rich that little explanation is needed. As night comes to an end and dawn begins to break the frogs begin to fall back down to the ground. There is a funny picture showing a group of police officers all standing around trying to figure out where the lily pads covering the pavement came from. The last few pages include the text “Next Tuesday, 7:58 P.M.” and show a picture of farm and the shadow of a pig taking flight.

Wiesner’s books are popular because they play with the reader’s sense of reality. In his third Caldecott winning book, Flotsam, a young boy finds an old camera washed up on the beach. This completely wordless story pushes the reader’s imagination even farther than Tuesday, by creating a magical undersea world and a camera that captures the most amazing photographs of that world.

In Flotsam the reader follows the little boy to the camera shop and waits for the photos to be developed. Wiesner uses a combination of full page illustrations and comic book style cells to move the action along. When the little boy is finally able to look at the photographs he and the reader are amazed to find a magically undersea world. The first photo shows a large school of fish, one of them with robot parts and glowing eyes. The second photo shows a group of octopuses in an underwater living room. Another shows sea turtles swimming through the ocean, their backs covered with tiny conch shell villages. One of the other photos shows that instead of undersea mountains, islands are really the backs of giant star fish.

These imaginative illustrations are filled with interesting details and beautiful colors. The last picture the young boy in the story sees is quite a surprise. It is a photograph of a photograph of a photograph of all the children who have discovered the special camera. At the end the little boy takes a photo of himself holding the photo of all the children before him and then throws the camera back into the sea. The reader is treated to a host of other underwater images. Flotsam won the Caldecott Medal in 2007 and it is easy to see why. This magical book will capture anyone’s attention.

Wiesner has illustrated over twenty titles, eight of which are all his own creation. Wiesner’s books are great for children and adults alike. It is easy for the reader to see that Wiesner has a sense of humor and really loves what he does. When asked what he likes to draw most Wiesner answered, “The “What if…?” situations…are what I enjoy the most. I’ve also developed a tendency to put fish in many of my books and pictures. They are interesting to draw, so I try to have a fish turn up in each book” (Cummings, p. 87, 1992). He also bases the people in his books on people in his life. He’s even based a few characters on himself (Cummings, p. 88, 2005).

Darlene’s Opinion
Wiesner’s books are wonderful examples of wordless stories. When I selected David Wiesner for this project I wasn’t sure how I felt about wordless books. I knew that I liked his artwork and that I thought his version of The Three Little Pigs was interesting and funny. I was not prepared to fall in love with his artwork. I have always loved the ocean and spent a large part of my childhood wanting to be a marine biologist. There are pictures in Flotsam that I want to hang up in my home. The way he combines images of everyday life and fantasy is seamless.

These books would be a wonderful edition to any collection. I can imagine children spending hours and hours just gazing at the interesting concepts that Wiesner creates. Even when combining his art with a story written by another author, Wiesner is able to capture the story perfectly. Each of his illustrations is a work of art. I like the sense of fun and mischief that Wiesner is able to show in the Bunting’s Night of the Gargoyles and with the flying frogs in Tuesday. He is able to compliment text or create pictures that tell a story all on their own. It is no surprise that his books have won three Caldecott Medals.

References
Bunting, E. (1994). Night of the gargoyles. New York, NY: Clarion Books.

Cummings, P. (1992). Talking with artists. New York, NY: Bradbury Press.

Houghton Mifflin (2011). Retrieved from http://www.hmhbooks.com/wiesner/index.html

Marcus, L.S. (1998). A Caldecott celebration: Six artists and their paths to the Caldecott Medal. New York, NY: Walker and Company.

Wiesner, D. (2006). Flotsam. New York, NY: Clarion Books.

Wiesner, D. (1987). The loathsome dragon. New York, NY: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

Wiesner, D. (1991). Tuesday. New York, NY: Clarion Books.

Wheeler, J.C. (2005). David Wiesner. Edina, MN: ABDO Publishing Company.