Wednesday, September 15, 2010: Kids' Maximum Shelf: Art and Max

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt/ Clarion: Art and Max by David Wiesner

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt/Clarion: Art and Max by David Wiesner

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt/Clarion: Annexed by Sharon Dogar

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt/Clarion Books: A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park

Editors' Note

Maximum Shelf: Art & Max

In this edition of Kids' Maximum Shelf--the monthly Shelf Awareness feature that focuses on an upcoming title that we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere--we present Art & Max by three-time Caldecott Medalist David Wiesner, which goes on sale on October 4. The review and interviews are by Jennifer M. Brown. Clarion Books, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, has helped support the issue.



Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Children's: Bats at the Ballgame by Brian Lies

Books & Authors

David Wiesner: Unveiling Worlds Within Worlds

You've described the evolution of Tuesday as a rather rapid process, at least in terms of your first sketches and plotting out the dummy. Is that how it often happens for you?

The basic process is very similar for each of the books. The speed at which it happens changes. [Laughter.] Tuesday really was the fastest. There's a moment in pretty much all the books, the "AHA" thing that triggers a chain of connections in your mind--and hand and pencil and paper--that brings the story together. So I kind of work backwards in that I have a visual idea and then I have to develop the story behind it and the visuals from that. It can sometimes be a lengthy process, and occasionally very quick. In the case of Tuesday, it was while I was doing the [March 1989] Cricket cover that that moment I always hope happens happened.

There were a lot of stories about frogs in that Cricket issue. When I was a student, I loved the vaguest assignment, one word. The less constricting it is, the more freedom you have. As I drew frogs in my sketchbook, I drew one on a lily pad. I'm looking at one thing, and I see something else. Those are the moments you live for. I looked at the blob-like shape on top of the base, and I didn't see a lily pad, I saw a flying saucer. I did the cover, but I was still intrigued by the frog and the flying saucer, and in my sketchbook started drawing the 32 pages. The beauty of the picture book is you that can do anything within those 32 pages, but you have the framework and the title page, and you know where things are going to fall. Where would the frogs go? Out of the swamp and into the town, and all the pieces fell together--the times of day, the title of the book--in about an hour. Other books? Getting to that unlocking of what-the-story-is moment can literally take years. 


Was there a moment like that for Art and Max?

Art and Max was slightly different in that there was an idea right at the beginning. It had several trigger points. Pretty much all my books are in watercolor. I love watercolor and there's a lot to explore with it. Flotsam summed up an approach storytelling-wise and I thought, "I'm not going to do much better than that." It came together in a way that was very satisfying. I wanted to do something different.

My initial thoughts centered on media. I'm the youngest of five, and my older sister and brother were artistically inclined, so we had all these oil paints, colored pencils, ink and pastels. I started thinking about what I used then. I suddenly saw this little narrative arc that involved all of those media. A character painted in oil, or opaque paints. Remember tempera paints when you were a kid, and if you painted it too thick it cracks? I pictured the outer shell breaking off, and underneath there's the character again but there's a soft powdery pastel. Now the character's there in watercolor, and the watercolor gets washed off until the line drawing is left. So what do I do with that? How can I turn that into a story? There were several points at which I had to figure out what would set this off. How would this actually happen? The character tripping and falling? No, there had to be a viable reason. Wait, there could actually be a point when one character covers the other with paint, and the anger breaks it apart. That triggered the second half: the first half is the deconstruction, and then the second half the reconstruction, and the relationship between the two characters.


By the end of the story, Max and Art have been influenced by each other.

Max is the id and Arthur's the ego; one's in control and one is wild. Both sides of those come together. There's the fun in the story of making chaos happen, but also harnessing that at the end, too. Max is working on the canvas in the final image, but you see that it's almost Van Gogh-like; Art is unharnessed but with a certain amount of purpose, doing the action painting. Both come through the experience recognizing the worth of each other's approach to art and life. That is the way--let's not get rid of who you are, but bring in everything and refilter it, and bring it back out through your own sensibilities.


You published Tuesday before our current fascination with comics and graphic novels. Here, too, you use full-spread images and inset panels. Were comics an influence for you?

I grew up reading comics--Jack Kirby and Marvel comics and the Fantastic Four--and I learned an enormous amount about visual storytelling from those. Tuesday was the first place I used and played with that form. Flotsam expands on that as well. It's a wonderful visual language. In Tuesday on some of the pages I use the large background--film terms like establishing the shot--then the silhouette and the inset panels establish different parts of the town, the birds and so forth. The beauty of the panel construction is that for you, the reader, your mind bridges the information between the two. The two pictures of someone reaching for a doorknob, and the next with the door open, it's two static pictures but you've completed the action in your mind. The fun is to think about how much happens from panel to panel. If it's too big a leap you can lose the reader, too incremental and it's boring. Unless you're using it for that effect, like in Flotsam when the boy is waiting an hour for the film to develop. You can stretch time, you can compress time. Those pages in Flotsam with lots of panels, you read that quickly. Then for the big pages that are full of information, your eye has to get in there and wander through all the details. You can use these different layouts to pace the reading experience of the book. That's the part I love, when I finally have the story and can think about how I'm going to unfold it.

Art & Max is deliberately simpler, with pages of no more than three panels. Those two- and three-panel pages are there primarily to bridge the set pieces, the different media transitions. Each story dictates how that's going to go. That's the beauty of that sort of storytelling, thinking about how to break the action down.


In The Three Pigs, you deconstruct story, and in Art & Max, you take apart art as a process. Do you like taking things apart to see how they work?

It's fascinating. I'm not always taking everything apart, but there's this idea, a version of which I can trace. There was a cartoon when I was a kid, and in it the kids are running around, and one kid runs out of the cartoon, and you see the sprockets of the film and the frames as they go by, and the character goes off the film into a big empty white space, and then comes back, and the film continues as it had been. I remember gasping and thinking, "Oh my gosh," and loving this idea that there was a world outside the cartoon. You can see how that translated all these years later into The Three Pigs. Behind the pictures, there's a whole other world. There are pictures within pictures within pictures in Flotsam. I remember being at the barber as a kid and looking in the mirror and there was another mirror behind you and the images going back and back, back, back. Free Fall has got it. It's something I come back to a lot, wondering how things work. How does reality work? You look around and you think, well, maybe there is a factory that makes clouds into shapes.

Wiesner discusses his process for Tuesday at length here.


Houghton Mifflin Harcourt/Clarion: Flora's Very Windy Day by Jeanne Birdsall, illustrated by Matt Phelan

Dinah Stevenson: A Picture in Need of a Story

The first thing David Wiesner showed to his editor, Dinah Stevenson, for what would become Art & Max, was a bear-shaped creature who was painted in color, but with a different medium showing through underneath. "I loved that picture but it needed a story," said Stevenson. "How did he get to be that way? Who else was involved? And what happened afterward?"

Sometimes Stevenson will go months without hearing from Wiesner. By the time he showed her a dummy of the story, the bears had turned into lizards. "When he comes in, he always has something to show me," she said. "If there are any puzzling or confusing spots, I point them out." Occasionally, Wiesner poses the question. For instance, he wondered whether anyone would question, in the middle of a desert, an electric fan and vacuum cleaner. Stevenson suggested picturing a house on the title page from which an extension cord could run. "I think a lot of children like everything to connect up somehow," she explained. Another logic question arose from the scene in which Max unwinds Arthur into a pile of random lines. "Initially, David had Arthur talking still, and I thought that defied the logic of the event. We know lizards don't talk, but it was the idea that the presence, although invisible, should not speak. He's gone off and left Max alone, and Max has to deal with it, without Arthur telling him what to do--as Arthur surely would if he were able to."

As the book progressed, the two lizard characters "began to polarize," Stevenson recalled, "one as the expert adult, Arthur, the other as the brave and daring young person, which was Max. The fact that they're lizards gentles it down a bit; you don't have to think of Arthur as the fine arts teacher or parent." Stevenson praises many things about Wiesner's approach, one of them being the timing of the page turn. "It's not a way station, something to get through on the way to the next thing," she observed. "It's an event." And, in a book that's a testament to the creative process, she pointed out that Wiesner has tremendous confidence and trust in his own process. "His process is consistent in the basics, which is his preference to see something worked out visually before committing to it, and his tendency to further develop a concept as the process goes on." Wiesner wasn't sure at first what Arthur reconstructed should look like, for instance, so he used a placeholder until he came up with the right solution.

Stevenson described Art & Max as autobiographical, "because it's the story of an artist learning to be an artist." She added, "I think anyone who applies himself will go through a comparable process. You have to be willing to try, and the further you go, the more adept you get--and you can save your friend's life when he turns into an unraveled line drawing. It's the perils and rewards of creativity--David is a career artist who's writing from experience."



Stand Up for Art & Max

To celebrate the publication of Art & Max, Clarion/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt is sponsoring a contest to win a visit from author-artist David Wiesner.

Booksellers who signed up by August 1 received a standee of the two lizard heroes, Art and Max, to decorate in any way they wish. They must submit a photo of the standee to Kate Greene ( by October 15. 

Clarion Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt received a tremendous response. More than 100 booksellers signed up for the contest. Each received a standee of the two lizard heroes, Art and Max, to decorate in any way they wished. The publisher will announce the winner and two runners-up on November 1, 2010.

The winner gets a visit from David Wiesner, and the two runners-up will receive a signed set of all David Wiesner titles published by Clarion Books.

All stores that participated (by decorating their standee and submitting a photo) will receive a signed copy of Art & Max. Wiesner will be making a 10-city tour, including stops at regional trade shows MPIBA and PNBA. For those of you who missed Wiesner's presentation at the ABC Not-a-Dinner at BEA, you may gain some insight into his process on Art & Max through this video.

Clarion/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has announced a 250,000-copy first printing, plus a 12-copy display, and has planned national advertising and publicity.



Book Brahmin: David Wiesner

On your nightstand now:

The Surrendered by Chang-Rae Lee; Cartographies of Time: A History of the Timeline by Anthony Grafton and Daniel Rosenberg; Marion Mahony Griffin: Drawing the Form of Nature, edited by Debora Wood.


Favorite book when you were a child:

With my little clock radio resting on my pillow, I would listen nightly to Jean Shepherd spin his outrageous tales across the airwaves. When I learned that Shepherd had written books, I collected loose change scattered about my room and went to a local bookstore and bought In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash. I read it so many times, I started to recognize how he structured his stories, how he built a scene toward its humorous payoff. That was when I began to understand the mechanics of storytelling. I shamelessly copied his style in school writing assignments. Got an A for one of them!


Your top five authors:

As of 3:47 pm on the Wednesday I'm writing this; Michael Chabon, James Marshall, David Mitchell, Kurt Vonnegut, Alice and Martin Provensen.


Book you've faked reading:

The Uses of Enchantment by Bruno Bettelheim. I've picked up the gist from listening to others, but I couldn't take more than a few pages myself. Really, it's just too much.


Book you are an evangelist for:

Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud. Best exploration of the art of telling stories with pictures. Ever. I use it when I teach and recommend it to everyone connected to books and images.


Book you've bought for the cover:

A book I took out from the library for the cover was called, I believe, Old Iron Glove. I was a preteen looking for something to read and saw this baseball book on the shelf. I wasn't then and am not now a baseball lover. But there was a very nice sketchy line drawing on the cover. I was really taken with the loose, expressive quality of the drawing, despite the subject matter. I almost didn't take it out. I mean, it was about baseball. But the cover made me do it. The story was pretty good, too.


The artists you most admire:

Oh my. Richard Serra, Mark Rothko, Neil Young, Chris Ware, Charles Sheeler, Stanley Kubrick, Jack Kirby, Joey Ramone, Giorgio Morandi, Werner Herzog, Yo La Tengo, Jean-Pierre Melville, Thomas Sgouros, Bernd and Hilla Becher....


Book that changed your life:

In the summer between my sophomore and junior years at RISD, I came across Mad Man's Drum by Lynd Ward. This wordless novel, done completely in woodcuts, crystallized ideas I was exploring relating to visual storytelling. The depth of information that it conveyed through purely visual means was--is--amazing. It also clarified for me that the book was the form within which I should work. This was a first edition that I saw and it was such a beautiful object! The feel of the leather, the smell of the paper, the richness of the ink--it was intoxicating.


Favorite line from a book:

"He's going to make you some shirts." This is the last line to a short and exquisite chapter from James Salter's Light Years. When I meet a truly remarkable person, I think to myself, "He's going to make you some shirts."


Book you most want to read again for the first time:

Issue #51 of The Fantastic Four, "This Man... This Monster!" A tremendous short story--and not just "for a comic book." I still get chills when I read it. But that first time, when I was 10, it completely and totally blew me away.



Book Review

Children's Review: Art & Max

Art & Max by David Wiesner (Clarion Books, $17.99 Hardcover, 9780618756636, October 2010)

In the best of friendships, each friend plays a part in influencing and awakening the other. In the case of Art and Max, the two lizard heroes of David Wiesner's penetrating exploration of the creative process, we literally get to watch how they inspire changes in each other through the evolution of their artwork. Arthur--or Art, as Max likes to call him--begins as the accomplished artist, while Max is the novice. But in this masterful picture book, the student teaches the teacher.

Wiesner sets the stage with the cover, as he often does. Arthur (pictured on the left) towers over Max (at right). Arthur, slit-eyed and perfectly composed, balances his palette with paints carefully arranged. Max may be small of stature, but he holds his yellow paint high, like a torch, his wide eyes fixed upon it. Each protagonist grasps a virgin paintbrush, and they stand back to back, as if about to begin a duel.

Max's feet do not touch the ground as he approaches Arthur, arms outstretched, on the title page spread. Arthur, absorbed in his work, paints a rose-tinted lizard that's concentrating on its pose. An orange lizard leans forward to watch Arthur paint. Only a small yellow lizard sees Max coming. Max kicks up dust in his enthusiasm and also sends Arthur's paintbrush flying ("Careful, Max!"). "Hey, Art, that's great!" Max says. Arthur proclaims his lines of dialogue in the stately serif font (Century Schoolbook) you'd find in Dick and Jane books or other classroom texts. Max's lines, on the other hand, appear in a san serif font (Magma Halo Italic) that emits the same kind of energy he does, urgent and excited. Their verbal exchanges unfold with no need for attribution.

First Arthur's easel, then Max's dominate the spreads. The drama plays out in the desert, where the sandy floor takes up little more than an inch-width band on the pages, and the vast sky forms Wiesner's canvas. As he did with Flotsam, the author-artist creates a world within a world. Max, with a blank stare and brushes in hand, stands with his back to a bare canvas as if paralyzed by what to place upon it. A blank page, a blank canvas: every child, writer or painter knows that feeling of intimidation. How to begin? "Well... you could paint me," Arthur says. "You? Really?" And Max does. He places his paintbrush directly on Arthur's scaly skin and, in a series of panel illustrations, leaves a trail of thick blue, yellow and red paint. The primary colors. The sky turns from mint green to gold to red.

"MAAAAAX!" Arthur shouts as the paint on his belly cracks. Max's eyes are trained on this crackling of the paint. The paint explodes in a torrent on a wordless spread, as the lizard onlookers go flying. The thick paint falls away to reveal a layer of pastels below. Max brings out the fan next. The chalky consistency of the pastels blow off in a rainbow breeze. A drink of water washes away Art's watercolor layer. Art is now an India-ink drawing. But through all of these incarnations, Art's essence remains. As Max tries to hold onto Art ("It's Arthur!" the giant lizard insists), the line drawing unravels like a misshapen wire coat hanger. With only the pale blue sky as his canvas, Max begins to reconstruct Art. Alone. But his expression looks very different from when he had his back to that blank canvas. He knows what he wants to accomplish. His first attempt is clumsy, but Max doesn't give up ("More detail, I think," says Max). As Max adds in the forehead, the nubby row of protrusions on the brow line, the delicate fingers, we begin to recognize Art. "Acceptable, I suppose"--high praise from the master lizard. But Max is not finished. He returns with an Acme vacuum cleaner, sucking up every last paint speck he can find. "Now hold still," Max tells Arthur, as he blows back the speckles in a stream of paint. With a turn of a page, Art appears in a pixilated splendor worthy of Georges Seurat. Max has indeed "painted" Arthur.

In the final scene, when they both pick up their paintbrushes, Art and Max are changed as characters and, consequently, as artists. Now it is Max who primly holds a palette, as he paints the yellow and orange lizards in a Van Gogh fashion, while Art lifts his paint cans high and applies sweeping arcs of paint in a dancelike motion reminiscent of Jackson Pollock. Not on a canvas, but on a cactus. Max has gained some of Art's discipline; Art has acquired some of Max's spontaneity. They play, experiment, stretch. One of the hallmarks of Wiesner's work is that the more we look, the more we see. At its core, this is a story of friendship, and the way Art and Max each contribute to the other. It's also a not-so-thinly disguised metaphor for the fact that our experience of art changes us, and we as witnesses also bring something to the art. The book is the visual equivalent of Ars Poetica.

Best of all, Art and Max's example demonstrates that we never stop growing. There is no one right way to do anything. We can only find our way through experimentation and play. And we don't have to do it alone. This may well be Wiesner's most playful, joyful book to date. A masterpiece.



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