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The Origin of a Wordless Author
A Tribute to David Wiesner - by David Macaulay
Why Frogs? Why Tuesday? - David Wiesner's Caldecott Medal Acceptance Speech
David Wiesner: The Master of Make-believe - by Michael Patrick Hearn
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Sector 7 interior image

David Wiesner:
The Master of
Make-believe

By Michael Patrick Hearn (published in 1999)

Caldecott Medal Winner David Wiesner is a master of incongruity. Frogs levitate in Tuesday, monstrous peas float down the Mississippi from Peoria to Mobile in June 29, 1999, and great fish-shaped clouds invade the New York skyline in his latest extravaganza Sector 7. Even in the relatively tame (and autobiographical) Hurricane, Wiesner considers the boys’ wildest daydreams while playing on the trunk of the great felled tree. At the advent of his career Wiesner seemed condemned to interpret the fantasies of other people. The strangest of his early assignments was William Kotzwinkle’s E.T.: The Storybook of the Green Planet, a now forgotten sequel to the famous Steven Spielberg picture. Then Wiesner retold with his wife Kim Kahng the obscure English folk tale "The Laidly Warm of Spindelston Huegh" as The Loathsome Dragon, but he did not finally break loose as a picture book artist until the publication of Free Fall. This experiment in free association evolved from a ten-foot painting he made back at the Rhode Island School of Design as a demonstration of "metamorphosis." It unrolls like a long gigantic frieze as one image melts effortlessly into the next. There is always a shrewd logic behind Wiesner’s fancy; Everything unravels at a mad, giddying pace in Free Fall up to the very last picture where it is revealed that the child was all the time just dreaming about the things in his bedroom. Wiesner further stretched the visual storytelling possibilities of the wordless picture book in the brilliant Tuesday. With just four lines of text strategically placed like titles in a silent movie, Wiesner pushes the benign running gag of frogs floating through a typical American town to the limit. Each new double page spread tries to top the last one right up to the wry surprise epilogue.

Like many modern illustrators, David Wiesner is an eclectic artist. His picture books have grown out of a lifetime of study. He constructs them like storyboards for animated cartoons, and all sorts of seemingly contradictory influences come into play in their presentation. Wiesner possessed a wild imagination from early childhood and was always drawing. He copied pictures from action comics and Mad Magazine in grade school, and made silent movies in high school. He was a sucker for science fiction pictures, Alfred Hitchcock, and The Twilight Zone. He knew about DaVinci, Raphael, and Michaelangelo before they became Teenage Ninja Turtles. At the Rhode Island School of Design, he discovered Lynd Ward’s pictorial "novel," in which the entire story was told in a series of woodcuts. He studied the surrealists Eacher, De Chirico, Magritte, and Dali. His children’s books further resonate with the influences of William Pene du Bois, Maurice Sendak, Raymond Briggs, and Chris Van Allsburg. Wiesner remains a student of the picture book form. He is always exploring new ways of presenting a story through inventive composition from varying perspectives. He is an intrepid craftsman who grows with every new title. The latest, Sector 7, places him in the top rank of modern juvenile fantasists. Wiesner’s vast cloud station is a magnificently constructed plane located somewhere between Oz and where the Wild Things are.

Despite all the bizarre imagery of his pictures, there is no nonsense about Wiesner’s style. He seeks no distinctive "voice" in his manner and works in a generally conventional way. His watercolors are cool, clean, and precise in their line, color, and form; but they soar with shimmering surfaces and rich textures. Perhaps the funniest of his children’s books, June 29, 1999, is also the only one that relies as much on its words as its pictures. It is a perfect example of picture book irony. While the baffling illustrations explore incongruities of scale, the tongue-in-cheek text takes in all the bizarre events so seriously. "Cucumbers circle Kalamazoo…Lima beans loom over Levittown…Artichokes advance on Anchorage…Parsnips pass by Providence." Wiesner descries them with the deadpan delivery of a National Enquirer reporter. The child believes because Wiesner obviously believes. This master of make-believe is always asking, "What if….what of….what if…." Could frogs really float all over town like they do in Tuesday? Yeah, when pigs fly!

Michael Patrick Hearn teaches classes on the history of children’s picture books and is the author of Myth, Magic, and Mystery: One Hundred Years of American Children's Book Illustration and The Annotated Wizard of Oz.


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