Why Frogs? WHy Tuesday?
David Wiesner’s Caldecott Medal Acceptance Speech for Tuesday
Bufo marinus, the Australian cane toad, secrets a toxic substance when it is attacked. This substance is lethal to nearly all predators, including dogs and other large animals, and it can have an incapacitating effect on humans.
In the early 1970s, some adventurous young Australians discovered an interesting use for the cane toad. After the toad is boiled down into a broth or resin, it can be ingested as a liquid or smoked as a powder. The toxin, bufotenin, produces a hallucinogenic reaction in the user. To this day, it is a criminal offense to smoke a cane toad in Australia.
I’m often asked where I got the idea for Tuesday. The question is usually accompanied by a suggestion or two. Did I have a pet frog while growing up? Do I live near a swamp? Do I have a "thing" for frogs? I have discovered only recently that quite a lot of people have a special affinity for frogs. My favorite comment, though, was a rhetorical question that came from Laurence Yep, who gave me a funny look and asked if I had been importing cane toads.
The truth is that the imagination needs no outside stimulus. To watch children at play is to see the mind in all its uninhibited glory. Growing up in New Jersey, my friends and I re-created our world daily. The neighborhood would become anything from the far reaches of the universe to a prehistoric jungle. To believe that giant Pterodactyls were swooping down on us required only a small leap of faith.
Dinosaurs were an important part of my world as a child. Just as the caves of Lascaux, France, are full of images of the animals hunted by pre-historic man, so my room was full of drawings of the dinosaurs I hunted in my backyard. In an attempt to make them more real and alive, I drew them over and over again.
I had many books about dinosaurs. My favorites were the ones that had the best pictures, and the pictures I liked were in a World Book Encyclopedia supplement about the evolution of the Earth. It wasn’t until many years later that I realized the pictures in the book were by the artist Charles Knight, the man who first visualized what dinosaurs looked like, and on whose work all subsequent dinosaur renderings were based.
The dinosaurs were executed in exacting detail, with solid musculature, giving the animals a real presence. Thinking about it now, I’m aware it probably wasn’t the greatest printing job, but back then the washed-out quality of the black and white reproductions created a real sense of atmosphere for me. I thought they were photographs. Even after I should have known better, I thought they just might be photographs.
The realization that the pictures were painted by an actual person was a revelation. The reality I perceived in those scenes was totally captivating. At the time, I couldn’t imagine being able to paint so convincingly. But now, as I work, I’m continually trying to recapture for myself that total belief in the world I’m creating on paper.
As I moved from dinosaurs, I discovered other imagery that exerted a powerful hold on me. In the stacks of Bound Brook (New Jersey) Public Library, I would sit and pore over the Time-Life books on the history of art. I was drawn immediately to the Renaissance artists—Dürer, for one, Michelangelo, and Da Vinci—before they were Ninja Turtles. The Mona Lisa is a compelling portrait, but it’s the landscape she sits in front of that I found fascinating. It’s a wonderfully alien-looking place, more like Mars than Italy. Hieronymus Bosch made a deep impression on me, too, and landscapes of Pieter Brueghel the Elder fascinated me even more. Your eye can wander in and out of his paintings, from the extreme foreground to the distant horizon, with incredible clarity and detail. I was also intrigued by the surrealists—Magritte, de Chirico, Dali—who depicted the dream world with an unsettling precision.
Every painting seemed to be a scene in a story, like a frame in a film. I longed to be able to switch on a projector that would show me what happened before and after the image that was captured on the canvas.
And, of course, I went on trying to put my own reality down on paper, not always with welcome results. When I was in the fourth grade, we’d find a short assignment on the blackboard every morning that we were supposed to work on until the bell rang to start class. This was called "a.m. work," and we did it on paper that was about six by nine inches and sort of an ochre color. It was cheap paper, but it had a nice bit of tooth to it and was great for drawing. One morning I looked up from a scene I was creating to find our teacher, Miss Klingibel, standing next to me. She was not amused. She took my picture and wrote an angry note to my mother: "David would rather be drawing than doing his a.m. work." In my opinion, that was the most astute comment she made all year.
I went on to study at the Rhode Island School of Design. I was finally in a place where everyone would rather be drawing than doing "a.m. work."
During my freshman year, my roommate, Michael Hays, casually described to me a book that would become a catalyst for many of my own visual ideas. He had seen this book in the rare books collection in the Hunt Library at Carnegie-Mellon University. It was an allegorical novel for adults about good and evil, life and death, and spirituality. And it had no words. The story was told in a series of about 130 woodcuts.
I couldn’t get the idea of this book out of my head. A year and a half later, I visited Mike in Pittsburgh. I arrived in the evening, and we were at the library first thing the next morning.
The book is called Mad Man’s Drum and is by Lynd Ward, whose book The Biggest Bear, won the 1953 Caldecott Medal. Sitting in the artificial air of the library’s climate-controlled rare book room, I read the book in amazement. Each turn of the page opened a door in my mind a little wider.
Back at school, I began to explore the possibilities of wordless storytelling in some of my assignments. It was in my senior degree project that I had the chance to investigate the form more fully. I created a forty-page wordless book based on Fritz Leiber’s short story "Gonna Roll the Bones." I began to understand the process by which a story is distilled, and the essential information presented in visual terms.
When I graduated and began working as an illustrator, my goal was eventually to publish a wordless picture book of my own. I was very fortunate to make a connection with Dorothy Briley, who believed in the vision I had and let me bring it to fruition in an uncompromised form. Free Fall was the culmination of many ideas about an impressionistic kind of storytelling that I had been forming since art school.
There were many other possibilities I wanted to explore. I longed to do a book that was wildly humorous, almost slapstick. When I talked about this, people who knew my work found it a little hard to believe. I was offered a number of manuscripts to illustrate, but none that seemed to fit the particular mood and tone I had in mind. I knew that I would have to make up my own story someday. That "someday" turned out to be Tuesday.
So what was the inspiration for the book?
My first professional job, which I got while I was a senior at RISD, was the March 1979 cover for Cricket Magazine. So when I was asked to do the March 1989 cover for Cricket, I was very pleased—two Cricket covers exactly ten years apart would make nice "bookends," for my first decade in children’s books.
Another reason I was happy to accept this job from Cricket is that their instructions for a cover are the perfect assignment: "Do anything you want to do." They let me know, as food for thought, that because this was the March issue, there would be stories about St. Patrick’s Day and about frogs—the link there being green, I think.
St. Patrick’s Day didn’t strike a chord—but frogs, they had potential. I got out my sketchbook and some old National Geographics for reference. Frogs were great fun to draw—soft, round, lumpy, and really goofy-looking. But what could I do with them?
I drew one on a lily pad. That shape . . . the round blob with the saucerlike bottom. Suddenly, old movies were running through my head: Forbidden Planet and The Day the Earth Stood Still. Together, the frog and lily pad looked like a fifties B-movie flying saucer! As I drew, I saw that the frogs and toads weren’t actually flying. It was the lily pads that had the power of flight, like a carpet from The Arabian Nights.
For the Cricket cover I showed a group of frogs rising up out of a swamp, heading off to who knows what mischief. I liked the picture a lot, and I began to like the frogs and toads themselves. They had distinct personalities. They looked pretty silly, yet up in the air they clearly felt dignified, noble, and a bit smug. I wanted to know more about them. As I did when I looked at a painting as a child, I wondered what happened before and after this scene. Now I could find out.
Appropriately, I was in midair when I finally got around to thinking seriously about "the frog book." I was sitting in an airplane, looking through my sketchbook, and I thought, Okay, if I were a frog, and I had discovered I could fly, where would I go? What would I do?
Images quickly began to appear to me, and for fear of losing them I hastily scribbled barely legible shapes onto the page; a startled man at a kitchen table; a terrified dog under attack; a roomful of frogs bathed in the glow of a television. A chronology began to take shape, and within an hour I had worked out a complete layout, which remained essentially unchanged through to the finished book. Everything was there, the use of the panels, the times of day, and the title.
At least as often as people ask me where I came up with the idea for the book, they want to know, "Why Tuesday?" When I decided to punctuate the story with the times of the day, it became clear that the mysterious element had to do with the particular day of the week when these strange things happened. So I tried to decide what the funniest day of the week was. I immediately discounted the weekend; Saturday and Sunday had too many connotations, as did Friday. Monday was next to go, being the first day of the work week, which left Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Wednesday’s spelling had always bothered me, so it was out. Thursday was all right, but the more I said "T-u-e-s-d-a-y," the more I like the "ooze" quality it had. It seemed to go with frogs.
A wordless book offers a different kind of an experience from one with text, for both the author and the reader. There is no author’s voice telling the story. Each viewer reads the book in his or her own way. The reader is an integral part of the storytelling process. As a result, there are as many versions of what happened that Tuesday night as there are readers. For some, the dog in the story is rightfully defending his territory against amphibian invaders, and their sympathy lies with the dog when the frogs get the best of him. For others, the dog is a humorless bully who gets his comeuppance. As the author of a wordless book, I don’t have to concern myself about whether the reader’s interpretation of each and every detail is the same as mine. My own view has no more, and no less, validity than that of any other viewer. Since my intent was for the book, as a whole, to make people laugh, all that matters is that the pictures are funny.
A series of individually funny pictures, however, does not necessarily add up to a successful story. The book was very carefully plotted, and details were developed in ways that move the story forward as logically as possible, from the full moon that rises slowly in the sky that first Tuesday night, to the gibbous moon that appears a week later at the end. By placing my characters in the context of a familiar reality, I hoped to entice readers to take that great leap of faith and believe that frogs, and perhaps pigs, too, could fly—if the conditions were just right.
One result of winning the Caldecott Medal is the opportunity to travel and meet a wide variety of people who are interested in my book. Readers can be quite passionate about their perceptions. I’ve heard heated arguments over what Tuesday sounds like. Some people are sure it’s a silent squadron of frogs gliding through a still summer night. Others are equally positive it’s full of zooming cartoon sound effects accompanied by Wagner’s "Ride of the Valkyries."
It has been great hearing children tell me how much they love "those frogs" and how funny they think the book is. One first grade class wrote their own book, Wednesday. In it, their school is subjected to some interesting revenge fantasies involving scissors and math papers.
I keep waiting for letters telling me how frightening Tuesday is. I’m waiting only because many people—and by people I mean adults—keep bringing up this possibility, whether I’m at a signing, a speaking engagement, or on the "Today" show. Fortunately, kids know funny when they see it. If, after reading Tuesday one evening before bed, they look out the window and see frogs flying by—well, we should all be so lucky.
I’m always delighted when teachers and librarians tell me about the ways they use wordless books. These books have become springboards for all kinds of writing, bookmaking and even drama classes. Teachers of English as a second language tell me that wordless books are particularly useful in helping students express their thoughts in English. The students aren’t inhibited by the burden of having to translate literally. That kind of interaction between books and children is very exciting. To know that my own pictures may be inspiring imaginations with the same wonder I felt as a child is a very satisfying feeling.
In 1989, when Free Fall was given an Honor Medal, I felt supported in my interest in the wordless format. By awarding Tuesday the 1992 Caldecott Medal, this year’s committee has challenged the perception of the wordless book as a novelty. I thank all the committee members for the great honor of being included among the distinguished roster of medal winners. I hope Lynd Ward would be pleased.
I would like to thank a few others who have played a part in my being here tonight.
My thanks to my family for a lifetime of encouragement and support.
To Tom Sgouros and David Macaulay, two unfailingly generous teachers.
To everyone at Clarion for making it such a fun place to publish books, and to Carol Goldenberg and Dinah Stevenson for good advice and great humor.
To Dorothy Briley, who was the first person to give me a chance to be an author. When I presented her with the pencil dummy of Tuesday, which was not the book she was expecting, I thank her for laughing.
To Dilys Evans, who has been with me every step of the way, always ready with biscuits and a pot of tea.
Finally to my wife, Kim, who is a part of every book I do. Thank you for asking me to the Sadie Hawkins Dance.