In a second-floor den in his Maryland home, author/illustrator David Wisniewski stores the tools of many trades. One table is piled high with scraps of the color stock that he uses for his meticulous cut-paper illustrations. On his lamplit drafting table, a glass jar bristles with his favorite #11 X-Acto blades. Bookshelves serve as a combination display space and library, where antique Hans Christian Andersen volumes accompany a glossy set of the Cultural Atlas of the World.
The decor offers only quiet clues to his identity. Two handmade puppets in velvet and fur garments recall a production staged by Wisniewski and his wife, Donna, during the 1980s. Two pairs of clown sh s denote their owner's stint as a performer with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus Clown College. And on an uppermost shelf, in an innocuous wooden box, resides the 1997 Caldecott Medal, which Wisniewski won for his illustrated folktale Golem (Clarion, 1996).
This understated studio, which overlooks a tree-filled cul-de-sac not far from Frederick, Md., is a good place to do thoughtful work. And, for a guy who once worked as a clown and a puppeteer, Wisniewski has written some serious-minded children's books. His picture books -- with the exception of his forthcoming The Secret Knowledge of Grown-Ups -- convey intense concentration rather than center-ring wackiness. His attire suggests the same: he is dressed in a casual brown plaid shirt, black jeans and pointy Western boots. The only hint of outrageousness comes from the wide silver bracelets he wear's on each wrist.
Golemis perhaps his most challenging work. In this grim tale, a rabbi protects the Jewish people from religious persecution by bringing a terrible clay giant, the Golem, to life. Wisniewski's other titles show the same consideration of metaphysics and tradition. His 1989 debut, The Warrior and the Wise Man, solemnly endorses wisdom over force as twin Samurai battle elemental demons. Three more historical epics -- Elfwyn's Saga, Rain Player and The Wave of the Sea-Wolf -- imaginatively span the centuries, introducing grade-schoolers to Vikings, Mayans and the Pacific Northwest's Tlingit tribe.
"I don't want to do anything trivial," Wisniewski says emphatically. "And by 'trivial' I don't mean comedy. Having a laugh is important. What I mean is treating a subject snidely or shallowly. Each of the books I've done has a moral point, which to me is the engine that drives the story." Although he is himself a Christian Scientist, Wisniewski is careful to represent diverse religious perspectives. Even so, he had his hands full with Golem, which deals in shades of gray, not moral absolutes. The book opens on dangerous ground, pointing up "fierce hatreds" between Christians and Jews in 16th-century Prague.
Golem is a very ambiguous tale," Wisniewski says, "and for that reason some people thought it was too dark." He recalls his post-Caldecott appearance on Today: "Katie Couric said, 'Wonderful illustrations, but this story! It's about oppression, repression and death. You say this is suitable for third and fourth graders?' And she gave that killer-chipmunk smile of hers.
"It was a rude, 'gotcha' question," Wisniewski grumbles. He replied that picture books have become more sophisticated. "I kinda wish I had said, 'If you have trouble with the tale, take it up with the 400 years of Jewish parents.' But I didn't think of it at the time."
Clown School to Puppetry
Wisniewski's peripatetic background prepared him for a series of career moves and instilled in him the resilience of a freelance artist. Born in 1953 in England, the son of an American Air Force officer and a British mother, Wisniewski spent his childhood on the road in Nebraska, Alabama, Texas and Germany. When Wisniewski's father was stationed at Andrews Air Force Base, the son tried attending the University of Maryland.
"I ran out of money and interest, in that order," Wisniewski recalls. "And that's when the Ringling Bros. Clown College happened." He traveled the U.S. with Ringling and spent another year with the California-based Circus Vargas. In 1975, he resettled in Maryland and interviewed at the Parks Department, where a certain Donna Harris hired him to work in puppetry. "I was good at making stuff, making props," Wisniewski says with a shrug. "I got hired on that basis and got married six months later."
David and Donna Wisniewski have been in business together, one way or another, ever since. They remained as entertainers on the county payroll for four years, and they formed their own shadow-puppetry group, Clarion Shadow Theatre (no relation to the publishing imprint), in 1980. "We were expecting our first child within six months," the author recalls. "That first year was not only starting a business but starting a family."
In 1985, when their second child was born, the Wisniewskis diversified once again. Two children made it impossible to tour, so Donna taught David graphic design. Two years later, Wisniewski met former editor Dilys Evans at a seminar in Washington. Evans reviewed his portfolio of graphic design work and, according to Wisniewski, "did something pretty unusual. She said, 'I don't usually do this but I'm going to give you the names and numbers of four publishers and you can tell them I sent you.'"
Wisniewski planned his cold calls four months in advance; then he procrastinated. Two weeks before he was supposed to go to New York, he still didn't have a manuscript. At the last minute, he says, "P.O.'d" at his own inactivity, "I went for a walk around the block and I came back with a basic idea for The Warrior and the Wise Man."
He went to New York with a complete manuscript, two prototype illustrations and his freelance portfolio. At his very first meeting, with Dorothy Briley of Lothrop, Lee &Shepard, he sold his first book. Dinah Stevenson became his editor and has worked on all six of his historical books. When Briley and Stevenson left Lothrop for Clarion Books, Wisniewski followed.
Believing that "God doesn't give you talents and no place to put them," he doesn't pay attention to trends. "I was told that the market for folktales has softened, one reason being there are a lot of weak folktales produced," he says. However, Wisniewski believes there is still an audience for his legend-based storytelling. He presented Golem as a shadow play at the Smithsonian last year and notes that this year's Caldecott Medal went to another storybook adaptation of a familiar tale, Paul Zelinsky's Rapunzel.
Wisniewski has never had a literary agent, although some have come calling recently. He remembers one conversation in particular, with an agent whom he once solicited through a friend.
"Her first words were, 'Honestly, I was going to call you before you won the Caldecott,'" Wisniewski remembers. He quickly learned that a popular author can demand better advances, better royalties and even a new contract. "She told me everything I needed to know," the author says without remorse. He had already signed the contract with Clarion to illustrate Andrew Clements's Workshop, a manuscript that introduces the hand-tools in a box. He asked for a raise and got one.
Needless to say, a Caldecott winner commands a lot of leverage. "I don't want to gouge," he says, "but on the other hand this workman is worth his hire."
Planning a picture book is a laborious process for Wisniewski. His closely observed settings are constructed from cut paper, which he slices into intricate overlapping filigrees and tacks into place with pieces of photo-mounting tape. Even the tiniest details, confetti-size snips that resemble opaque paint dots, are minuscule pieces of paper.
When beginning a project, Wisniewski first does a set of color sketches. He expands these pieces into black-and-white drawings. Later, he will use the sketches as carbon-paper transfers and as templates for his cutout shapes. Finally, he colors the black-and-whites, chooses a palette and orders colored paper. With the layout and color scheme finalized, Wisniewski sets about cutting and pasting units that will join together in coherent finished pieces.
With a rustling of vellum, Wisniewski brings out the stack of double-page spreads for Workshop. He has attached the bare-bones text to a 1920s scene of carousel-building. Palm-size shapes of two characters' upper bodies lie on the drafting table, ready to be fit into an image. Although the man will wear a blue cap over his rust-brown hair, his head is shaped exactly right. "Real obsessive-compulsive," Wisniewski remarks. "Is anyone gonna see the top of his head? Noooo. But I know it's there."
Wisniewski lifts an overlay from Workshop's title page. Here, a boy apprentice looks into the craftsmen's workshop. A photographer will later light this multi-layered image so that the shadows between levels suggest depth. Once Wisniewski's spreads have been photographed, his final concern is the lucidity of his color. Nine years ago, poor color separations dimmed the visual impact of Wise Man. "Sometimes, if people still have a copy, they say, 'Did you start using different colors? Better papers or something?'" he says. "But it was just a skewed print job."
Mulberry, an imprint of William Morrow, will publish the book in paperback next fall, Wisniewski notes. "I almost feel like calling them up and saying, 'Do you want the transparencies again?'"
Books That Unfold Gradually
In his art and in his stories, Wisniewski is conscious of overlap and complexity. "I think people expect a picture book to communicate itself at a glance," says Wisniewski, who tries to write books that unfold gradually.
Meanwhile, he wants to reach a wider audience, in terms of age and literary taste. Folklore serves Wisniewski well. Yet Golem proved exhausting. "I knew after Golem that I didn't really have another historical epic left in me for a while, because it's such a Sturm-und-Drang kind of story," he says.
The obvious step for the ex-clown was a foray into comedy. Unfortunately, his experiments were not welcome at Clarion. Rejection always hurts, but Wisniewski was particularly dismayed that his first attempts at comedy drew a negative response. "Damn, I was a circus clown. I made people laugh professionally," he exclaims, reliving his disbelief. "And I realized that you can listen to stuff and laugh your head off, and then see it transcribed and it just lies dead."
He decided to try other projects. While working on books already scheduled for Clarion (like Eve Bunting's Ducky, published last September), Wisniewski took his comic material back to Lothrop, which had published his first two titles, and offered editor Susan Pearson a set of "entries in a conspiracy of parental knowledge that has never been exposed. He envisions himself as one whose years don't match his youthful outlook. "In the book, I have crisscrossed the country in impenetrable disguises because I am the only grown-up who has the gutsto blow all this secret information," he says.
Pearson liked the idea, and The Secret Knowledge of Grown-Ups was on its way. Slated for release in April, the book tells children the weird reasons behind adult rules like "drink your milk" and "don't bite your nails." The philosophy behind Secret Knowledge, Wisniewski jokes, is "you're never too young to be paranoid." Like any worthy conspiracy, Secret Knowledge operates on several levels of intrigue. Consider: when Wisniewski tells kids that vegetables must be eaten lest broccoli revert to its prehistoric carnivorousness, he actually promotes eating veggies. Whose side is he on, anyway?
"You're still asking for good behavior, but for totally different reasons," he admits. "So it's not subversive at all. It's really undergirding parenthood." Can this fiendish plot succeed, or will David Wisniewski return to writing historical epics? Regardless, he's one satisfied double agent.