Telling the story with pictures
This month, David Wiesner's Sector 7 softly breezes into bookstores and libraries, taking readers on a tour of the cloud industry. Wiesner, a Caldecott medalist, has been interested in telling stories with pictures since his teen years, when he enjoyed wordless comic books and silent movies. "I think early on it was clear that my interest was telling stories with pictures, not just painting a picture. To me, it was more interesting to actually do a series, because if I came up with a character or place that I liked, I wanted to spend more time either in that place or with that character. So actually, telling stories with pictures was very appealing."
With comic books, "I certainly read the stories and got into what was going on, but what I really found exciting was the way the stories were told pictorially, using the panel format to do all sorts of incredible things: pressing time or expanding it, using an entire page of little panels to take a rather small action and stretch it out, almost like slow motion. One of the turning points for me was when [I came across] a comic book artist who would occasionally put into the story several pages with no words, telling the story with pictures.
"And I thought this was the greatest thing I'd ever seen. There's always slam! bang! pow! stuff going on, word balloons everywhere. But here there was this calm, quiet interlude, with just pictures. What really fascinated me was the way he was conveying information with just pictures, using close-ups, moving away to a long shot, to speak of it in film terms. As I came across more examples of wordless storytelling over the years, it just took hold of me. My senior degree project was a 48-page, wordless picture book where I took a story by fantasy writer Fritz Lieber and told it in wordless format. It was an incredible learning experience."
Part of that experience certainly included editing. Conceptually, editing text and dialogue is easy to grasp, but how does one edit pictures? "Visual editing involves discovering the way to break up the rhythm of the book; the way your eye tracks across the page, for example. Some of my books are very dense with information, with big double-page spreads that have a lot going on. You really have to sit and look very carefully. Then you can get to a page, like in Tuesday, where the frogs are flying up in the air, and there's a panel where they're spinning somersaults and flying into the town, chasing the birds, really moving quickly across the page. So taking into account how your eye is going to read the position plays into it, too. That's really the first place I try to work those things out."
Wiesner's ideas bloom differently, but all are planted in his sketchbook. His second Cricket magazine cover, for example, eventually blossomed into the book known as Tuesday.
"I was working on the March cover, and two themes in this particular issue were St. Patrick's Day and frogs—a lot of green. St. Patrick's Day didn't seem all that interesting, so I thought I'd do something with frogs. All my books start in my sketchbooks, and the frogs were very interesting and fun to draw. They're very squishy and bumpy, very odd-looking things." Reminiscent of 1950s science fiction/flying saucer movies, "[the lilypad] became a sort of magic carpet, flying around. So I did the cover, and I liked the painting. But once again, I wanted to spend more time with what I created. I thought more and more about flying frogs, and started seeing frogs in front of the TV, chasing the dog, floating by the window, etc. And I just organized them, and they created this sequence. It came together incredibly fast. In that case, it grew out of this sort of arbitrary suggestion."
June 29, 1999, however, originated from a drawing that had lingered in his sketchbook. The image was part of some samples Wiesner had drawn for his portfolio to submit to various publishers. "There was a lot of folktale stuff, like wizards, for example. And I had a bunch of stuff in the back that were things I really wanted to do, including a painting of a large pepper floating in the sky in this field, with all these people with wires, trying to pull it down. And art directors and editors would get to these items and say, 'What is this?'" he laughs.
Wiesner would glance at this particular image periodically for the next 11 years. "I wasn't forcing anything. I was kind of waiting for it to reveal to me what it was about. After I finished Tuesday, I was looking at it again, and I wondered why had I envisioned them floating down? Maybe something went up first. Sector 7 also started out as a drawing that I needed to work my way through."