David Wiesner and flotsam

By Dinah Stevenson

People ask me how I edit David Wiesner’s books, the ones that don’t have any words. An editor is usually a person who gets a manuscript, offers comments, and suggests revisions. A wordless book has no manuscript. Therefore, I don’t edit David’s work.

True enough. What I do, for the most part, is wait for it.

Flotsam was seven years in the making. David was already playing with ideas for it while creating The Three Pigs, which was published in spring 2001. That fall, David and his family moved from Milwaukee to Philadelphia and lived for almost a year in a rented apartment, which didn’t include an art studio, until their new house was ready. David’s wife left her surgery practice. In June 2002, David received the Caldecott Medal for The Three Pigs. Five days later, his father died, leaving an estate to be settled. Following this period of upheaval and uncertainty, it’s not surprising that the next picture book wasn’t completed till four years later. It’s amazing that a book emerged at all — and a brilliant book at that.
All, or almost all, of the picture-book ideas he was considering turned out to be Flotsam.

Fortunately, David doesn’t throw anything away. He keeps his sketchbooks, thumbnails, line drawings, dummies, revised dummies, and jacket sketches — a complete paper trail. This makes it easy to trace the evolution of Flotsam, element by element, in hindsight. At the time, though, David’s progress seemed almost random. Every few months, he would appear in my office with a sketch dummy, and sit with me while I turned the pages. (For sheer self-consciousness, looking at artwork in the artist’s presence is even worse than eating a three-course dinner on a dais in front of two thousand people.) We’d have a brief conversation, in which I’d allude to what I felt was or wasn’t working. Then there would be a period of silence, sometimes several months. I would wait. And then David would appear with another sketch dummy — which might or might not be for the same story.

With the exception of Tuesday, which resulted from a single burst of creativity, David’s stories have come together one piece at a time. His sketchbooks are full of isolated images and sequences of panels and scribbled lists of words and ideas, some of which move in one direction, some in another, some apparently in no direction at all. Each turn of the kaleidoscope yields a new design. With Flotsam, a key piece was the insight that it wasn’t a story about fish; it was about a boy. Now it had focus. Another was the realization that a camera could provide a link between one kid and another, across time and space. Now it had a plot.

The fact that nothing gets thrown away — consciously or unconsciously — is a valuable resource. Long before Flotsam took shape, David drew in his sketchbook a boy scrutinizing a cereal box, on which there is a picture of a boy scrutinizing a cereal box, on which there is a picture of a boy . . . a short step from the photographs of photographs in Flotsam. And it wasn’t until David had (after several false starts) created the jacket for Flotsam that he rediscovered, in a sketchbook, the image of a jacket centered on a fish’s large, round eye, which he had drawn months earlier for some other reason and forgotten entirely.

David trusts his creative process, even when he doesn’t know where it’s taking him. He doesn’t make these connections happen; he waits for them. And then he draws all the pictures, because otherwise he doesn’t know whether they tell a real story. This step is labor-intensive for him, but I’m glad he takes it. Otherwise I might be called upon to respond to a wordless book that I couldn’t see.

I trust David’s process, too. As one book idea morphs into another and another and recovers and recombines elements of what has gone before, it can seem directionless, and is definitely indirect. I have learned from experience, though, that while David Wiesner’s creative journey may not be a straight path, it invariably takes him to the right place — this time, to the marvelous creation that is Flotsam. I’m lucky to be along for the ride.

Dinah Stevenson is vice president and publisher of Clarion Books, a Houghton Mifflin Harcourt imprint.
From the July/August 2007 issue of The Horn Book Magazine