The Picture Books of David Weisner
More interesting than a marriage between Norman Rockwell and René Magritte
When my friend Matt Harris asked me what I thought about David Weisner’s books, my ignorance was unaccountable. I would later learn that Wiesner was a celebrated author/illustrator with a 30-year career and two Caldecott Awards. Moreover, he was, as it were, a friend of friends since he moved in a circle in which I have a keen interest, a group that includes Walter Lorraine (the famed children’s book editor at Houghton Mifflin) and Chris Van Allsburg (the well known picture book artist who likewise went to Rhode Island School of Design). My ignorance was also unexplainable because, I would subsequently discover, Wiesner creates that very kind of surreal picture book I especially like.
So, ignorant, I set myself down to read his nearly two dozen books. His early work–for example, The Loathsome Dragon (1987) and Hurricane (1990)–struck me as highly accomplished and promising but not that original. Tuesday (1991), which I describe below, was the breakthrough book and is still my favorite among all the books I read; in this work, it seemed to me, Wiesner discovered his signature combination of humor and fantasy that he would employ in later offerings. That’s not to suggest he doesn’t occasionally misfire; while I seem to be alone in these opinions, his award-winning Sector 7 (with its Ghostbusters-like story of cloud-making in New York City) is a bit too precious for my taste and his The Three Pigs (with its demythologizing of picture-book making) strikes me as disingenuous and too clever. Those reservations aside, there remain plenty other works of real interest.
Here are five books below that strike me as top drawer. In my remarks, I realize I often mention how Wiesner’s offerings remind me of work by others and that may leave the impression his volumes are derivative. The opposite may be the case: Because I missed Wiesner in the first go-round, the patterns I notice in others may actually have come from him. But there is third and more likely possibility: as his pictures make clear, Wiesner is a student of the picture-book genre and an historian of its avant garde.
The Loathsome Dragon (first published in 1987 and reissued in 2005). Based on a British fairy tale collected by Joseph Jacobs, the book tells about an evil stepmother who marries a widowed king and becomes a rival to his orphaned son and daughter. A wicked enchantress, the stepmother changes the girl into a dragon and she stays that way until her brother can come and rescue her. Wiesner’s pictures recall Trina Schart Hyman’s illustrations of fairy tales as well as Nancy Eckholm Burkert’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Hurricane. While most associate hurricanes with Louisiana and its Gulf-of-Mexico neighbors, they sometimes strike New England and wreak havoc on the Eastern Seaboard. As if a contemporary updating of Norman Rockwell’s paintings, Wiesner pictures show a family weathering a storm in what appears to be the Rhode Island of Chris Van Allsburg. Wiesner has the chronology of hurricanes exactly right: the gathering of groceries and flashlight batteries, getting the cat in, radio reports (“winds gusting to . . . ”), then the lights going out, followed by the frightening creaks and groans of a wind-battered house, and afterwards going outside to find fallen trees and a mess of leaves everywhere and hearing (at the very last) the sound of chainsaws.
Tuesday. Winner of the 1992 Caldecott Medal, this work marked Wiesner’s considerable departure from the matter-of-fact into a realm of magical realism. In this largely wordless picture book, mysterious events occur on a Tuesday after the sun sets: Frogs borne on lily pads begin to levitate and zoom about like weird skateboarders in an otherwise hyper-normal world. One picture of aerial amphibians emerging from a fireplace seems to pay homage to the surrealist René Magritte (and his famous painting of a locomotive emerging from the same locale) and the concluding picture (which hints that pigs fly on Wednesday nights) foreshadows the aerial swine of Michael Sowa’s picture books.
June 29, 1999. As her school science experiment, Holly Evans sends into the skies boxes of vegetable seedlings tied to helium-filled weather balloons. The results are astounding: behemoth turnips raining down on Montana, blimp-sized cucumbers circling Kalamazoo, mutant artichokes advancing on Anchorage. Comic implications ensue: peas (the size of barges) are floated down the Mississippi, pumpkins carved into homes, and New York City loses its old nickname and becomes the Big Rutabaga. As odd as it is to see a sky full of giant cabbages, a larger mystery remains: Why some of the vegetables falling from the sky are kinds that Holly never sent skywards. You’ll have to read the book to find out why.
Flotsam. In this Caldecott-Medal-winning book, in this wordless volume, new meaning is given to the East-Coast expression “going to the shore.” In a pictorial narrative that recalls the graphic storytelling of Shaun Tan, a boy finds an ancient underwater camera and takes its roll of film to a photo store to be developed. What he gets back are remarkable snapshots of an Underwater World that seem the visual version of Ringo Starr’s song “Octopus’s Garden”: beautiful schools of red mechanical fish swim by, squid have living rooms, and giant starfish step over whales. Moreover, by means of infinite regression (that picture-within-picture-within-picture technique most dramatically seen in Istavan Banyan’s terrific Zoom), we see photos of those kids who found the camera before. And in the conclusion, when the camera is thrown back into the sea, we know this process of youthful discovery will continue.
Originally published in Parents’ Choice (August 2010). An essay by Perry Nodelman about Weisner may be found here.
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