Beachcombing with David Wiesner
If you've ever wondered what kinds of treasure lie at the bottom of the ocean, you will fall in love with David Wiesner's 2007 Caldecott Award-winning book, Flotsam. This beautiful, wordless picture book tells the story of a young boy who finds a camera washed up along the seashore. When he develops the film inside, he is taken on a journey beneath the waves. We caught up with Wiesner to talk to him about books, beaches, and flotsam.
Parent & Child: How did you become interested in flotsam (beach debris), and why did you choose it as the subject of your book?
David Wiesner: I grew up going to the New Jersey shore every year — that was our family vacation — and I've always been fascinated by the ocean and sea. Fish imagery has turned up in my books for years, in most of my books actually. For this one, I had a visual idea of a kid walking along a beach finding something — something strange or magical, I didn't know what it was going to be. So that vision combined with a more vague idea, on a story level, of a way to connect kids across time and space, some kind of connection through the ages. When I thought of the idea of a kid finding a camera, it just seemed to work so well because I could throw the camera out there in the ocean, and the story just came together.
P&C: What's the coolest piece of flotsam you've ever found?
Wiesner: Most recently, about two years ago, we were poking around in the water line and either my wife or my son reached in and pulled out a watch. It had clearly been in the water for some time — the crystal was scratched up and the band was shredding. But as we looked at it we realized that it was still running and it actually had the right time. We strapped it on our beach bag and carried it around for the rest of the trip. Then we brought it home and stuck it in this little pantry area off the kitchen and forgot about it. One day we were in the kitchen and we heard this beeping noise. We couldn't figure out if it was the oven, or maybe the microwave. Then it stopped, and we heard it again the next day, and then realized finally, after poking around, that it was the alarm on the watch! It was set to go off at ten after nine every morning — so every morning we'll be down in the kitchen at the right time and we'll sort of stop and say, "Oh, there's the beach watch."
P&C: While anyone can enjoy Flotsam, its target audience is children of kindergarten through 4th grade reading levels. How is the kindergartener's experience with the book different from the 4th grader's?
Wiesner: I have no idea. I certainly am not thinking about any specific age group when I'm making the book. I've written picture books before and they seem to have a very wide age appeal. It's nice to hear particularly even from middle school and high school teachers who have used the books in class. It's unfortunate that after a certain age, some people think that we don't need pictures anymore. I don't believe that for any reason. Occasionally it will cross my mind to wonder how young the audience will be, of which I'm never sure. I think that while there is a complexity to the stories, what I try to do is tell them as simply as I can. Not simplistically, but very clear and sort of simple and readable images.
P&C: Is there a main message that parents and children should walk away with after examining the pages of this book?
Wiesner: No, I don't think there's ever a message. I'm just trying the best I can to tell a fun, cool story. If I do that, I think that's great. Beyond that, I'm happy with whatever anyone comes away with. There's no overriding moral or message that I was going for.
P&C: How can parents help bring the idea of a picture book to life?
Wiesner: In terms of this wordless book that you're supposed to be "reading," I sometimes find the most resistance comes from parents who really don't know how to read a picture book, or what to do with it. But this is an opportunity for a real interactive experience with a kid. Try asking the children, for a change, to read the book to the parents. Without the text there, anyone "reading" it is free to tell it however they want — either the child or the parent. When I read it in bookstores or in public situations, I add dialogue between characters or sound effects. I really get into a full-fledged storytelling thing, and I have parents come up to me and say, "Boy, that was really neat because I didn't know how to read it, and it was really nice to see you do that." My reaction is always, you know, you're free to do anything and really play with it and make it a whole different experience.
P&C: Did you have any favorite children's books?
Wiesner: There was a book that certainly was my favorite as a kid. It was by Alice and Martin Provensen. It's called The Provensen Animal Book. It's a big, over-sized picture book. I think the publisher later broke it up into several other smaller books. I remember just totally being captivated by everything in it. There were stories that were three or four pages long, some that were just a single page, poems, little visual games, all sorts of stuff. It was like a treasure trove of different kinds of stories. I can still remember my emotional reaction to some of the stories and the pictures, too. A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to get Alice Provensen to sign my copy.
P&C: You said your childhood family trips inspire you. How can parents today make family trips fun and inspiring?
Wiesner: What my parents did wasn't specific other than allowing me the freedom to go out and explore. Even at home, or down at the beach, whatever it was. Real encouragement, too, to look at everything and go out and explore it. Our family now goes down to the Jersey shore for a vacation each summer also, which is kind of funny, and the first thing we do when we go down to the beach is to walk up and down in each direction. We sort of scour the beach for flotsam, whether it's stones or shells or anything else that has washed up. One of our major activities is building sand castles. Whether you want to build a castle, or other kinds of structures, my son sometimes has more interesting construction ideas. You really don't think it's going to work, but you give it a try. So we've gone down with lumber, cords, and ropes to try to tie things together. You try to pack the sand, but they always collapse. There's just that sort of sense of letting your kids go out and try stuff and have fun.