Brendan Wenzel’s A Stone Sat Still looks at some of the same themes as his 2016 Caldecott Honor book, They All Saw a Cat. The earlier work surveyed the ways different creatures view the same housecat. In the new story, a stone is seen through the experiences of the animals that live around it. A gull uses it to crack a clam; otters gather on it; a snail roams its surface. But Wenzel’s deeper concern is with time itself. The book’s repeating chorus (“…and it was as it was / where it was in the world”) presents a vision of a planet that endures. Though the water rises quietly around it, the stone remains unchanged, deep under the waves. Wenzel spoke with PW about the place that inspired the story, making picture books as a way of thinking through experience, and finding solace in nature.
Did you have it in mind to keep looking at the theme of shifting perspectives, as you did in They All Saw a Cat?
Oh, yeah. The idea of point of view and perspective has fascinated me for so long. I think when I finished They All Saw a Cat, I knew that I wasn’t done exploring that space. I also really like the idea of a series or a collection of books that bounce off each other, play with each other, and allow readers to begin a conversation.
How did the story take shape?
The book was written at my in-laws’ house on the coast of northern Maine. It’s one of my favorite places. The original idea came from this rock that sits on this beautiful tidal inlet at the high-tide mark. When the tide goes out, it exposes these wide mud flats, and you can watch little shorebirds search for organisms in the seaweed beds. It’s one of the most calming, comforting places I know. I would think about time, and what has come before, and how you can see signs of the animals that have been there. There are shells on the rock. Seagulls come, and raccoons. Seal pups will come up on the rock during the winter. I was out there at 4 a.m. one morning, there was this mist, and there was a family of otters. I didn’t realize that otters go into saltwater inlets! At first, I thought I was seeing a seal; all I could see was a wake. Then one rose up out of the water and grunted at me, exhaling to let me know they weren’t thrilled that I was there.
Even though the living beings in the book are all animals, the voice of the narrator seems like a human voice, talking to human listeners—is that right?
I hadn’t thought about it that way, but yeah, that’s true. Of course, the book is invented for humans, and it is about human time. There was a very early version of the book that had a little girl in it at the very end who was also experiencing the stone, and the more I looked at it, it felt like that child would have to be in clothing that would place her in a certain era. There was something that seemed off about it.
I thought about all these animals and how they used the rock, and I started thinking about recent extinctions, like the Eastern mountain lion, and extinctions further back, like mastodons and ground sloths. There were mammoths in earlier versions of the story. There was something about that that felt as if it was placing the book in a particular time, too, and I wanted it to be a little bit ambiguous.
So maybe while They All Saw a Cat is about perceiving direct, visual experience, A Stone Sat Still is more about the perception of time?
Yeah, absolutely. It’s something that I think about quite a bit, and I find it very comforting. I think about mammalian evolution. I take a lot of comfort in the fact that things have been happening on this planet for a very, very long time. I have a kind of nightly ritual to calm myself at the end of the day. There’s a wonderful illustrator, Mauricio Antón—he does these beautiful depictions of big cats and mastodons. I’ll read a few pages about the Eocene or the Oligocene, a very long time ago. Reading these sentences helps me to imagine what that world would be like.
I’ll think about my backyard that I grew up in and I’ll try to backdate everything—how the foliage might be different, how the light might be different. I’ll think about an animal I’ve seen, like a bear, and try to imagine a creature that might have occupied that ecological niche earlier on, that shared some of its characteristics, to use as a point of connection—how they’d move and walk through the world like a bear. The thing that brings me so much comfort is how long those species have existed compared to how long we’ve existed. And how the tumultuousness and change of the period that we’re experiencing now isn’t necessarily the rule. For a lot of the history of the planet, life was quiet.
How did you put those thoughts together to make the story?
I personally think in a very tangential way. I go in a million different directions. Picture books are such a boiled-down form. You’re really trying to get to the essence of what you’re thinking about. And that’s the opposite of how my mind works. I need to spread everything out before I start to make those connections. Not sharing my thoughts with other people, but trying to work out what I’m thinking about. What is reading about mammalian evolution every night pointing to for me?
So when you brought it to your editor, was it close to its final form?
To be honest, the original images are very close to the version that you see when the final book is released. Although my book dummies are extremely loose and sketchy, the overall concepts don’t change a great deal during the process. But it always seems like a silly thing that one name appears on the cover of a book. I know people say that a lot, but really, so much of it is a collaborative effort, working with Ginee Seo and the other wonderful folks at Chronicle—like Jennifer Tolo Pierce, who’s an incredible art director. Ginee has this ability to look at the big picture and find those points throughout the book, those really crucial moments, where things need to be tweaked or slowed down. I don’t think we’ve worked on a project where there have been huge conceptual changes, but those places she sees as an editor and she thinks could be stronger contribute so much to the end product.
Can you talk about making the artwork?
It takes me a very long time to make books! A huge part of that is the amount of experimenting and playing while making the final artwork. Of course I make sketches like any other illustrator, but very often the initial drawing that I do doesn’t quite feel right.
I’ve talked to a lot of illustrators about keeping the vitality that pops up in the sketches [in the final illustrations], and I absolutely struggle with that. One of the ways of confronting that is to not stick so much to the visual compositional layout of what I’ve created, but to let the creation of the final artwork also be an exploration, and to continue to return to the feeling of the sketch, rather than the content of the sketch. That leads to multi-day explorations of cut paper and paint. I’ll try to create something entirely with acrylic paint in a painterly way only to realize that it’s not working—it’s not going to sync up with the feeling of the rest of the book.I’ve had projects where the initial round of sketches is conceptually very different from where the final book landed. Ginee and Jennifer have always encouraged that exploration and have never been bothered that the final illustration is not necessarily what I’ve shown them. And they also let me know if they like the first one better [laughs].
And now we should talk about the rising water, the water that readers see rising around the stone as the story goes on. Is it meant to be understood as sea-level rise?
So in addressing this I want to be precise in my language. In regards to the rising water, there could clearly be a reference to sea-level rise. In conversations with young people about climate change, I don’t want to downplay how challenging those conversations will be for parents and teachers. Different kids will be ready to have those conversations at different times.
The rock in the book is exposed at low tide, and the tide does rise. So it could be tidal movement. I’m leaving the source of the water rising a little ambiguous so that readers are free to wonder and to build their own story. That space is really important to build into books.
That being said, my hope is absolutely that A Stone Sat Still will serve as a gateway for conversation about this changing planet, and about facing that change. I think it’s great when a picture book grows with a reader. A child might read this as a book about rising tides until they’re ready to think about sea level and climate change. It’s a great visual device to represent change.
I did want to make a book about change. The conversation about mammalian evolution was the initial inspiration. We will be the thing that doesn’t make it. The world has been here before humans. And it will continue on after humans become extinct. I think about the world being the world for so long before humans appeared in it, before microplastics and oil spills and the rest of it.
If I have any apprehension about interviews for this book, it’s that things quickly move to huge important issues that I feel a bit out of my league to address. I think it’s one of the reasons I love making picture books. I feel grateful to work in this medium. I don’t have to communicate just through words. I can show someone: “This is what this feels like to me.”
What are you working on now?
I’m working on two new books with Chronicle that will be similar to A Stone Sat Still. They’re going to be their own thing, but all of them will bounce off and play with the other books. They will all have enough points of connection that they’ll work as a team.
I have a list of ideas for books that I think are kind of exciting. I don’t know if they’re all good ideas. When I sit down to commit to a project, one of the questions that I ask myself, is this larger concept going to be something that you really want to spend time with? To really build into your life for two years? When you consider writing the book, creating the artwork, going through the process of color correction, all the way through to going on tour to share it with kids, you end up talking about it for so long. The entire process ends up being peppered with surprises and realizations. It’s one of the reasons that you’re grateful that you get to make books.
A Stone Sat Still by Brendan Wenzel. Chronicle, $17.99 Aug. ISBN 978-1-4521-7318-4