Worlds within Worlds
Renowned picture book author/illustrator David Wiesner 78 IL has been probing the notion of worlds within worlds since his student days at RISD in the 1970s. “I first explored the ‘cosmic zoom’ in a class with [former Illustration professor and MacArthur Award winner] David Macaulay BArch 69,” Wiesner recalls. “And I’ve kept coming back to the idea.”
The first time Wiesner played with an iPad, he realized he’d finally found a platform that would allow him to tell a truly nonlinear story steered by the reader. “I’ve always believed that the story is paramount,” notes the three-time Caldecott Medal winner, “so I didn’t want to introduce any features that would kill the narrative flow.”
Wiesner’s first iPad adventure, Spot, is being released by Houghton Mifflin this month. The application allows the user to explore a series of ever-smaller microcosms by pinching and zooming – a physical skill, the author/illustrator points out, mastered by children as young as one or two.
Wiesner’s dozens and dozens of detailed watercolor paintings create magical portals that take the reader from a cat parade in Katzaluna to a dust bunny gathering in Lower Rügg to an underwater adventure in Oceana Prime. “Within each world there are different inhabitants and funny situations,” he explains. “But an overarching story runs through all of the worlds, allowing the reader to piece the narrative together by accumulating bits of information in random order.”
Pushing beyond expectations
Readers young and old have been delighting in Wiesner’s beautifully imagined worlds since he published Free Fall in 1988, which earned him his first Caldecott Honor right out of the gate. He subsequently won additional Caldecott Honors for the heavenly Sector 7 (1999) and the cat-meets-alien tale of Mr. Wuffles! (2013). In fact, Wiesner has earned more Caldecott Medals – the country’s top prize for picture books – than almost any other author/illustrator in history, winning for his magical farce Tuesday (1992), his reimagined take on The Three Pigs (2001) and his fantastical wordless picture book Flotsam (2006).
In each of these whimsical works, Wiesner pushes the boundaries of the picture book, surprising the reader again and again with characters who defy expectations, leaping off the page to explore new dimensions or travel back in time. “David’s imagination touches everything before it is rendered,” Macaulay wrote when Tuesday won the Caldecott in 1992. “He realized that just by changing his point of view, the Derailleur gears on his bike or even the vacuum cleaner could become an amazing technological landscape – jumping-off places for invention and creativity. Nowhere is the power of point of view more clearly displayed, or more masterfully handled, than in Tuesday.”
Wiesner has often credited both Macaulay and late Professor Emeritus Tom Sgourus 50 IL (who died in 2012) with inspiring and encouraging his development as an artist. “Tom and David were always pushing to find new stuff,” he says. “Even after he lost his eyesight, Tom went on to create some of the best art of his life. He is an ongoing inspiration.”
The art school experience as a whole was eye-opening for Wiesner, who decided as a sophomore in high school that RISD was his next move. “I couldn’t believe such a place existed,” he recalls, “and I couldn’t get there fast enough. Art & Max  was really about foundation year,” he adds. “I had to unlearn everything, build up again and start over.” (Wiesner’s son Kevin is currently completing his last year in the RISD/Brown Dual Degree Program and his daughter Jaime is applying to RISD this year, too.)
Although his approach has evolved over the years, Wiesner says that “the basic process is still the same. I’m a big believer in looking at the real thing,” he notes, “which is why I make 3D models – to understand the volume and shape of an illustration and visualize how to create a composition on the page.”
Now that he has completed Spot, Wiesner is working on a new picture book as well as a graphic novel intended for an older audience. “The graphic novel format allows me to tell a much longer story,” he explains. “I’m using a 2B pencil and then scanning it to get a nice dark line. I love the look of digital color and am learning to do it myself.
“I’m always thinking about what else I can do,” Wiesner adds. “And with every project, I’m looking for an emotional reaction: ‘Oh cool!’ If you get that, what more could you want?”
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