Visual Storytelling: An Interview with Three-time Caldecott Medalist David Wiesner

1381673800-wiesner__david_-_credit_annie_hosfeldIf you ever thought writing or illustrating a children’s book is a no-brainer, then you have yet to be exposed to the creative genius of David Wiesner. His work is original, witty and entertaining beyond words. But don’t think for a moment that he throws it all together; the truth is that he spends years developing one picture book – as he did with Mr. Wuffles – until it is just right.

The result of David’s diligence, extraordinary talent and innovative approach to visual storytelling have earned him three Caldecott Medals:  1) Tuesday in 1992; 2) The Three Pigs in 2002; and 3) Flotsam in 2007 as well as two Caldecott Honors: Freefall in 1991 and Sector 7 in 1999. He is only the second person in history to win the coveted Caldecott Medal three times.

I asked David if he had the time to  answer a few questions about  Mr. Wuffles and provide us with a glimpse into the long and involved process he goes through to consistently create his literary masterpieces.


 © Cover image  courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

When did you first realize you had a natural ability for drawing?

Drawing – making pictures – defined me from a very early age. Certainly by the time I was in third grade, drawing was the main thing I was known for by my family, friends and teachers.

Do you recall your first paid art project?

Near the end of my senior year at the Rhode Island School of Design, Trina Schart Hyman came to school to talk about being a children’s book illustrator. She was great – casual, funny and straight talking. At the time she was also the art director for Cricket Magazine and she stayed an extra day to look at portfolios. I showed her my work and we had a great talk. She then offered me a job creating a cover for Cricket. This was a risky and generous offer on Trina’s part, and one that was so exciting and challenging, that it pointed me down the path to picture books without any wasteful detours. The rest, as they say, was history.

Wow. That’s quite an awesome start to your career! I love the page on your website about the artist materials you use. So few artists share that much detail. Can you explain to our readers what the difference is between watercolors and gouache paints and what are the factors in determining which medium you use?

Funny, I find that artists are more than happy to discuss how they work. The main attribute of watercolor is that it is a transparent media. The layer beneath one layer of paint affects any layer of paint applied over it. A blue going over a yellow will produce a green. That blue will not cover up the yellow, it will mix with it. In contrast, Gouache is an opaque form of watercolor. One layer of paint will – sort of – cover the one under it. Choice of media is a personal preference depending on what you are comfortable working with and the appropriateness of the approach to the subject matter.

It’s fascinating that you often spend several years on illustrating one book and also create three-dimensional models of characters and objects to help you with the authenticity of your drawings. Can you briefly explain your process?

The biggest factor in how long a book takes to make is how long it takes me to pull the story together. I explore an idea in my sketchbooks. When I think my story is coming together I draw it out in a thumbnail storyboard. Whether the book has a text or not, I always write the story in pictures first. Next I will draw the story again, but at the size the book will be printed. This is called a pencil dummy. The drawings are more detailed, but still rough. This is about working out the story elements and the flow and design of the pages. After the dummy, I will draw the pictures again, but this time exactly as I want them to appear in the finished painting. This is the stage where I gather my reference materials. This can include making models of characters and structures.

Throughout all of those phases, I am still considering how everything I am drawing will affect the story. The final stage is to paint the pictures. Now it is all about how well I can render the images.


© Image from Mr. Wuffles courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

That is quite a process , and it’s good for others to learn that a lot of sketching is required before final illustrations are painted. What did Mr. Wuffles have to do with your cover for Cricket Magazine?

Mr. Wuffles! was a long time coming together, which began with that cover I did for Cricket magazine in 1993. On the front was an image of a flying saucer that had landed in the desert. The crew has emerged and is posing for a picture. When you opened the back to see the full image, it is revealed that they have in fact landed in a sandbox and are tiny.

In 2001 I began to try and turn this idea into a book. The opening was visually terrific. We follow the ship as it lands and the visitors begin to explore. Fingertips then enter one frame to set up the turn of the page that reveals the true nature of the situation. The trouble was, I couldn’t come up with anything else that good for the rest of the story. I tried on and off for several years, but it never gelled.

I’m impressed that you stuck with it for as long as you did.

One thing that did come out of these attempts was the idea that each species would speak in a different language. This was a very appealing visual concept. And then one day as I was drawing random things in my sketchbook, a solution appeared. I drew a flying saucer – a common occurrence – but this time I covered the ship with little pointy things. I really liked the texture of it. And I thought, “You know, my cat would love to scratch its neck on this. What a cool cat toy.” And there was my story. I immediately saw a funny and antagonistic relationship between the cat and the little aliens. The story just flowed out.

I was intrigued and thoroughly entertained by that alien language in the book. I read that you worked with a linguist to learn about how languages are created.


© Image from Mr. Wuffles courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Creating a fully translatable language is a tall order and not something I was aiming for. But I did want repetition of forms/symbols, which is a significant part of any language. I thought it would be good to talk about my ideas with someone who is trained in this kind of thing, so I discussed it with a linguist at Swarthmore College. It was fascinating to hear what he had to say, but most of it wasn’t really of use to me.

My text was in very short single “sentences” in word balloons, not large blocks of text where recurring characters and patterns would be discernible. I created a group of about 30 symbols based on geometric forms. The main thing I took away from this discussion was to double up the characters, as in fractions, with a numerator and denominator. This was a nice visual way to create more variety and to repeat characters. The languages are visual signifiers. While they aren’t literally readable, the gist of their meaning can be inferred from the context of the pictures. Body language, gesture, and facial expressions convey what’s happening. It’s in this kind of visual storytelling where picture books excel.


© Image from Mr. Wuffles courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

The plot and humor in Mr. Wuffles is really clever and so off-the-charts original. Was there a story or experience you had in real life that inspired you?

At that moment I described earlier – thinking that the spaceship I was drawing would make good cat toy – I was simultaneously thinking about the fact that no matter how many store-bought toys we buy for our two cats, they will never play with them. That became a key element in writing the story.

Might there be another Mr. Wuffles book?

I doubt it. I haven’t done any sequels yet, and I don’t see that happening. But, you never know.

What’s your next project?

I am in the middle of a graphic novel for middle grade readers – a very different experience.

What was that moment like when you became only the second person in history to win three Caldecott Medals, plus earn two Caldecott Honor titles?

It was pretty hard to grasp the reality of that. It still is!


 Read David’s 1992 Caldecott Medal Speech for Tuesday

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Read David’s 2002 Caldecott Medal Speech for The Three Pigs

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Read David’s 2007 Caldecott Medal speech for Flotsmam

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© Cover images courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt


Caldecott Honor title 1991

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Caldecott Honor title 1999

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Do you have advice for others who want to break into illustrating picture books?

Wow. There’s no short answer to that. I guess mainly to not create work that you think publishers will want to see, but to create art that is personal to you. That will be something no one else can offer and will distinguish your work from everything else.

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David, thank you so much for sharing your fascinating creative process with our readers. It must be so rewarding to be able to spend your days doing what you most love to do, using your natural gift for art and storytelling to its fullest, have your extraordinary work receive the recognition it deserves, and  to know you have inspired so many people with your books. Now that you have provided us with details about the making of Mr. Wuffles, I’m off to read it again, with this new perspective. And I can’t wait to get my hands on your new graphic novel when it comes out!


Readers, if you haven’t read  Mr. Wuffles you’re really missing out on a fantastic book! In addition to David’s Caldecott winners listed above, also read Art and Max; you’ll be blown away by his illustrations!

To visit David Wiesner’s website, click here. Check out his portfolio here. Visit publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s website here for many more outstanding titles.