Welcome to three-time Caldecott winner and local author David Wiesner, who joins us to talk about his newest book, Mr. Wuffles!
“I’ve been calling it a nearly wordless picture book that’s full of dialogue that nobody can read.” - Dinah Stevenson, Clarion Books
This is a story of a cat with ennui, the aliens who enliven his day, and the help they receive from the locals.
Hi, David! I have to start by saying that Mr. Wuffles! is a fabulous book. How did you come up with the idea?
Mr. Wuffles! was a long time coming together. It began with a 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.
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.
Does your cat Cricket, as the model for Mr. Wuffles, also disdain store-bought cat toys? If so, what alternate toy did you find that was engaging enough to produce such a brilliant series of play poses?
Cricket’s indifference to store bought toys led me to the storyline. Getting a cat to pose is an impossible task. So, I wasn’t hopeful about her being cooperative.
I had a very small video camera that I put on the bottom of pole so that I could film her down at floor level, since that is where the action takes place. To my surprise, she was very playful. A piece of string was enough to get her rolling around.
As it turned out, she was hyperthyroid, so her metabolism was really revved up! She’s on meds now and back to her old aloof self.
I understand you consulted with a linguist to help derive the aliens’ language. As a linguist myself, I’ve been fascinated with the system of symbols and keep trying to work out what different parts mean. Aside from the group photo, where I’m fairly certain I know exactly what the camera alien is saying and what the response is, I haven’t been able to pull any of the rest of it apart. (Well, except that the square might mean “Ow,” and Δ! is clearly a widely used, strong interjection of some kind.) Do you have a specific translation in mind for each element and utterance, or are they just meant to convey the general sense of what’s going on?
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 created a group of about 30 symbols based on geometric forms.
You’re right about the photo scene and the triangle. Also, I figured that the engineer – the one in the green robe (Think Scotty from Star Trek) – would speak a lot of technical jargon. His word balloons have the most symbols. I doubled them up as in fractions. This method of increasing the number of characters was a nice visual solution that I got from Nathan Sanders, a linguist at Swarthmore.
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 this kind of visual storytelling that picture books excel at.
What was involved in designing the spaceship?
I am a big fan of the classic flying saucer shape. They are clean and simple shapes that look great in flight. Very satisfying to draw. Basically, there are three parts – the top half sphere, the lower half sphere, and the middle circular plane. It’s just a matter of adjusting the top and bottom shapes to create different feels for the ship. I found the texture to be a welcome addition.
My very favorite of your books (now joined by Mr. Wuffles!) has always been June 29, 1999. While they both feature (okay, spoiler for June 29) visits from various aliens, what I love most about both books is the resultant mismatches in scale: ordinary humans and familiar landscapes paired with enormous vegetables in June 29, and here the tiny humanoid aliens paired with pencils and screws and marbles...and, of course, Mr. Wuffles. Is this something you’ve always done? When did you first start juxtaposing people and objects of very different sizes?
Scale change is my favorite visual fantasy. Conceptually it is so simple – make something larger or smaller and its relationship to everything around it changes dramatically. For a human shrunk small, their living room and its furniture become like the Grand Canyon.
As a kid, I fell in love with scale change from watching all the 1950’s Atomically Mutated Giant Bug movies on TV. How can you not love huge ants coming down the street? Just as good were the Atomically Mutated Tiny Person movies - the ultimate example being The Incredible Shrinking Man. It even has a fantastic tiny person vs. cat sequence.
I can tell that landscape and surroundings are very important to your artistry. While clearly you haven’t been hanging around under the radiator, I’m wondering how much time you spend in locales similar to those you create, and how much just happens at the drawing table.
I always want to see what I am drawing. If I can’t find the real thing, I build it.
For example, in June 29, 1999, I had a giant broccoli land in the backyard of my main character. Hard to go out and find that situation. So, I made a group of small houses, fences, and driveways and then put a normal size bunch of broccoli into the scene. Now I could walk around it and view it from all angles, plus above and below, to decide how I wanted to compose the picture.
I’m trying to create a convincing fantasy world. These are things that I want to see, too.
[Note: I've just seen a recent blog post of David's with photos of the broccoli-in-the-back-yard model!]
Are there new projects in the works that you’d like to tell us about?
I am in the midst of a graphic novel that seems to be at the middle grade level – whatever that is. I am also working on a new picture book. That’s about all I’ll say for now.
And now for our "3 for 3" book questions:
1. What were your 3 favorite books from childhood/teen years?
I am the worst with “What’s your favorite …” type questions.
Early books I loved were The Provensen Animal Book, a giant Golden Book by Alice and Martin Provensen. The Fantastic Four, by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee. Later (8th grade), Welcome To The Monkey House, by Kurt Vonnegut.
2. What are 3 books that you've read recently that surprised you?
Joshua Ferris’ use of first person plural as a narrative voice in Then We Came To The End totally sucked me in. Adam Hines’ Duncan The Wonder Dog wove words and images together in a wonderfully dense and strange way. Everything Chris Ware does surprises and delights me.
3. What are 3 books that influence/d your work?
Jean Shepard’s In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash taught me how to write humor. Lynd Ward’s Mad Man’s Drum and Edward Gorey’s The West Wing showed me the possibilities of wordless storytelling.
Thank you so much for joining us, David!
David Wiesner has been awarded the Caldecott Medal three times – for Tuesday in 1992, The Three Pigs in 2002, and Flotsam in 2006. Two other books of his, Sector 7 and FreeFall, were named Caldecott Honor Books.
Thanks for reading!!! If you're local to the area, please let the bookstore know if you would like to place a special order for Mr. Wuffles! You can email orders to orders [at] bigbluemarblebooks [dot] com, call (215) 844-1870, or come see us at 551 Carpenter Lane, in the Mt. Airy neighborhood of Philadelphia.
Next up: On November 26th, come check out Cordelia's interview with Cori McCarthy, author of The Color of Rain.