The story behind David Wiesner’s forthcoming picture book begins and ends with crickets.
In 1993, Wiesner created cover art for Cricket magazine that depicted the crash landing of aliens in what, at first glance, appeared to be barren desert. Readers who laid the magazine flat to view the wraparound artwork as a whole found two delightful reveals: the aliens were actually really tiny, and they hadn’t put down in the desert; they had landed in a sandbox.
Wiesner had turned another cover he had created for Cricket into Tuesday, which won the 1992 Caldecott Medal. Could lightning strike twice?
“I liked the idea of the relationship between the child who found these little guys in his sandbox, and how they could get along even though they spoke different languages,” Wiesner says. “The problem was what to do with them after they met.”
So he put that picture book idea aside and worked on The Three Pigs, which won the 2002 Caldecott Medal. Afterward, he took the aliens out of storage, but still, nothing worked, so he wrote and illustrated Flotsam, which (stop us if you’ve heard this one before), won the 2007 Caldecott Medal.
Back to the aliens after that. Same result. He moved on to 2010’s Art and Max. Then, while waiting for his daughter outside her music lesson one day, Wiesner doodled a spaceship covered in nodules. “It struck me that it looked like a cat toy,” he recalls. Wiesner thought about all the cat toys he’d purchased for their felines in his family’s life that had been completely and resolutely ignored. What if a tiny, occupied spaceship was the thing that finally captured a cat’s attention?
Gone were the little boy and the sandbox; in sauntered a black cat, who fixates on the spaceship, intent on finding out what’s inside it. The result is a story about a really bad day in the life of an alien flight crew, who survive crashing to Earth, only to face attack by a huge clawed monster.
“From time to time, we all say something is breathtaking, but when the real article comes along, and it actually does take your breath, you realize it’s a whole different order of things,” says Wiesner’s longtime editor, Clarion v-p and publisher Dinah Stevenson, whose only problem with Mr. Wuffles! (Clarion, Oct.) is that it’s hard to describe. “I’ve been calling it a nearly wordless picture book that’s full of dialogue that nobody can read.”
To create the aliens’ speech, Wiesner worked with a linguist, Nathan Sanders, who advised him to think about repetition, and to compose compound words in the way fractions are formed – with a numerator and a denominator. The words Wiesner’s little green men speak resemble what might be inadvertently produced by someone typing rows of numbers with the shift key left on. Meanwhile, bugs that live behind the walls and come to the aid of the aliens talk in rough-edged hashmarks.
“I didn’t realize until someone pointed it out that the bugs speak just like Woodstock did,” Wiesner says, referring to Snoopy’s feathered friend. “I thought, ‘Of course. No wonder I liked that so much.’”
Making the Rounds
This fall, HMH will send Wiesner on a 12-city tour to promote Mr. Wuffles!, with stops that include Boston, St. Louis, and Atlanta. Social media plans include a Tumblr promotion in which readers can submit photos of their own felines facing the unknown, much as Mr. Wuffles faces extraterrestrials; HMH will share some of the photos via Twitter hashtag #CatsVsAliens.
At ALA Midwinter this past January, the publisher debuted a video in which Wiesner shows how he created a cat’s eye view of the home in which the aliens find themselves by following his own cat around the house with a camera attached to a long-handled pole. When Stevenson questioned the position of the cat’s legs in one of the illustrations, he sent her a video to show he had gotten it right.
“He feels some obligation to listen to the things I say but when I said that doesn’t look right he said, ‘Oh, it is,’ and sent me the video he’d taken within 30 seconds,” Stevenson says. “I backed down immediately and he mentions it every time he talks about the book.”
Over the two decades it took Wiesner to come up with a story that satisfied him, the project went through many titles, including Hail the Conquerors and Greetings. One of his children’s friends had a cat called Mr. Wuffles, a name Wiesner borrowed. The book’s cover juxtaposes the exclamation point in the rainbow-colored lettering of the title with a portrait of the cat in full scowl beneath it, and Wiesner hopes it conveys “just how much attitude this particular cat has, and how much he really hates this stupid, fluffy name he’s been given.”
Wiesner says he would never saddle his own cat, who was “reasonably cooperative” as a model, with a name like Mr. Wuffles. But he didn’t get a chance with this particular kitty, now immortalized in the pages of a picture book. The cat already had a name when the Wiesners inherited him from friends who had to give him up.
His name is Cricket.