The Imagination of David Wiesner

Eliza Clark
November 27, 2017

"To watch children at play is to see the mind in all its uninhibited glory." So said David Wiesner, the acclaimed children's book illustrator and storyteller, in an acceptance speech for the Caldecott Medal. As a child, Wiesner continued, he and his friends "re-created our world daily. The neighborhood would become anything from the far reaches of the universe to a prehistoric jungle."

To capture some slice of what a child's imagination looks like with pen, paint and paper has been David Wiesner's mission during his amazing career as a creator of children's books.  And what beautiful, fantastical books he has given us, winning three Caldecott Medals, countless other honors, and most importantly the devotion of children, parents and teachers who can't get enough of his books. Wiesner is best known for his wordless tales, Tuesday and Flotsam, but has created picture books with written narration as well. His subjects range widely, tied together by beautifully rendered, highly detailed pictures, and by his interest in fantasy, imagination and crossing the boundaries of reality.

A perusal of his books of the past two decades reveals the development of a fascinating artistic imagination.

Hurricane (1990) came early in Wiesner's career, and tells of two little boys who weather a hurricane with their parents and (very cute) cat, only to find an old elm downed in their neighbor's yard the next day.  Their familiar landscape is transformed, and so is their imagination and play - the tree becomes in turn jungle, rocket ship, and simply "a private place, big enough for secret dreams, small enough for shared adventure."

With Tuesday (1991), his first title to win the Caldecott Medal, Wiesner breaks the bounds of reality more boldy, in a wordless book of frogs on flying lily pads who explore the ins and outs of a sleeping town.  He drew improbable flying objects so well here that perhaps he couldn't resist another go at it in his next book, the delightful June 29, 1999 (1992).  A little girl scientist, Holly Evans of Ho-Ho-Kus, New Jersey, may have altered the course of history when she set afloat rafts of vegetable seedlings into the sky.  Next thing she knows, giant vegetables are floating across the sky and down to the ground.  Could these be the same plants she set aloft?  The answer to the mystery is priceless, and the images of enormous broccoli in the backyard and peas bigger than barges floating downriver are hardly to be believed. Sector 7 (1999) continues the science fiction theme, with a little boy who visits the Empire State building on a viewless day, only to discover a cloud-making machine in the sky.  Clouds will never again seem quite the same!

Beginning with The Three Pigs (2001), Wiesner's books take a somewhat different turn, delving into the subjects of creative process, memory, shared culture and artistry. The Three Pigs is a fractured fairytale like no other.  When that big bad wolf huffs and puffs, the flighty pigs are blown right out of the frame of the picture in a wacky, visual postmodern tromp.  The pigs and other escaped characters play around off-page (paper airplanes and all), and, in the end, reconstitute themselves into a new sort of happy ending. Flotsam (2006) also asks about the origins of our ideas and imaginings, in the form of a wondrous and wordless tale of a boy who finds an antique camera on a beach and discovers underwater mysteries within that connect back to children across time.  (For a fuller Savvy review, see here.)  Both books received the Caldecott Medal, and are as different and stunning as can be.

Art and Max plunges straight into art-making and creativity.  In this most character-driven of all Wiesner's books, we meet Art the collared lizard, an experienced artist, and his friend Max the frog who is ready to learn. Max explores the properties of oil paint, pastel, and watercolor with explosive results!  A wonderful encouragement and inspiration for all children who love to create art.

As you can tell from this brief tour of the David Wiesner bookshelf, his oeuvre is a cut far above many picture books. He's a true original -- perhaps because, as he once said in an interview, "I write books for one kid -- me." For the rest of us, his images and stories prompt looking, thinking and imagining in new and stirring ways.

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