Children's literature: Writers, illustrators talk about creative process at BYU symposium

Published: Sunday, July 31 2011 3:00 p.m. MDT

David Wiesner speaks at a young reader's book symposium at BYU.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

PROVO — When David Wiesner was a boy, he heard a poem by Ogden Nash with the lines: "Does anybody want any flotsam?/I've gotsam. Does anybody want any jetsam?/I can getsam." He tucked it away in the back of his mind, "but I've loved the word 'flotsam' ever since."

When Wiesner was a boy, he saw a Droopy Dog episode where the character ran right out of the cartoon frame and into the blank space next door. He tucked it away in the back of his mind, but "that whole idea of an alternate reality, the fact that there was something else behind the pictures was very intriguing."

As a boy, Wiesner "sat up for years and years watching old science fiction movies." One of his favorite shapes was that of the old flying saucers he saw. That, too, got filed away somewhere in his mind.

What didn't get filed away was the fact that he loved to draw. That has been a constant all his life.

"By the third grade, my life path was set," he said. "My teacher sent home a note that said, 'David would rather be drawing that doing his schoolwork,' like that was a bad thing. I thought it was the highest compliment."

His parents, too, didn't seem to mind so much. At least, they kept him supplied with "all the tools and materials" he would ever need.

At the time Wiesner became known as "the kid who could draw." He has grown up into a man who creates children's picture books and has won three Caldecott Medals for his work. One of those winners is "Flotsam," which tells the story of a camera that washes up on the beach. Another is "The Three Little Pigs," in which the pigs are blown by the wolf out of the traditional story into an alternate reality. The third is "Tuesday," which tells the story of frogs sailing through the sky like flying saucers on lily pads.

His stories are often told without many words.

"I look at a picture book like it's a Chinese Tangram, with pieces that can create a variety of other shapes but all have to fit together in a whole," he said. "When there are no words, every picture has to tell the story, has to make you want to turn the page."

Wiesner was one of several national authors who participated in the 24th Symposium on Books for Young Readers recently held at BYU. The symposium drew librarians, teachers, parents and others who enjoy and work with children's literature.

"We are trying to raise awareness of the amazing world of children's literature," said Rachel Lynn Wadham, education and juvenile librarian at BYU and a member of the planning committee for the symposium.

"We want to let those who are engaging young children, as teachers, librarians, parents, know what wonderful things are going on in children's literature and how important it can be for children."

Books open new worlds, she says. "They energize the imagination. They help children see ideas and perspectives they are not familiar with. Reading is one of the most important things a child can do. Being able to read, to engage with text, is one of the most critical skills we can provide children."

Studies do show that children are reading less these days, Wadham says. "There are a lot more options, a lot more distractions."

But, she adds, they are reading. "There are passionate readers out there. And the ones who develop a passion for reading are the ones who have adults in their lives that are also passionate readers."

In addition to Wiesner, authors and illustrators participating in the symposium were Gennady Spirin, illustrator of such books as "A Apple Pie," "The Story of Noah and the Ark," "The Tempest" and "The Sea King's Daughter"; Robert Burleigh, author of "Home Run: The Story of Babe Ruth," "A Painter's Journey" and "Abraham Lincoln Comes Home"; Susan Meddaugh, author of "Martha Speaks" and other animal tales; Rebecca Stead, author of "When You Reach Me" and "First Light"; and Mary Downing Hahn, author of "The Doll in the Garden," "A Time for Andrew" and "Closed For The Season."

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