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Storytelling in the Digital Age: An Interview with Three-Time Caldecott Winner, David Wiesner

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We tend to think of technology as the inspiration behind the innovations of today, but what if instead, the idea is born before anyone has invented the technology to realize it?  

Four decades ago, illustrator David Wiesner came up with the concept of a nonlinear visual adventure, where stories could unfold as the reader traveled through worlds within worlds. With one fluid motion, perspectives could be transformed and new characters and environments revealed, allowing the storyteller to create endlessly different tales each time. But bringing this concept to life on paper was a perpetual challenge.  


This week, technology has finally caught up with David’s relentlessly inventive imagination. Launched today, David Wiesner's Spot by David Wiesner uses the iPad’s® “pinch and zoom” functionality to create a unique storytelling experience which inspires imagination, discovery and playfulness in users of all ages.

We sat down with David to find out more about the inspiration behind the app and the complex process of fusing his original artwork with today’s digital innovations to bring a game-changing concept to life.

HMHCo:  We know that you’ve had this idea for decades, but what first inspired it?

David Wiesner: The origin was an assignment that I did for a class nearly four decades ago. We had to create a transition from one well-known image to another. I’d chosen King Kong on top of the Empire State Building and da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. I saw the transition as essentially a camera movement, zooming out from King Kong to the island of Manhattan. The island then became the negative space within the surrounding dark waters, which, as you moved away from them, became the shape of a letterform. Moving even farther away, the image dissolved into writing that became the words below the da Vinci drawing.

I was always fascinated by the idea of worlds within worlds, and I would come back to the concept many times over the years. 

Then, one day while in an Apple store, a blinding flash of inspiration hit me. Someone showed me how to move my fingers across an iPad and how, if I pinched my fingers together, I could make stuff really big. I suddenly went, “Wow! This would be a great way to explore an idea I’ve been playing around with since art school.”

Flash forward a few years later. I asked my editor if HMH would ever be interested in publishing an original app—and it turned out they were considering asking me the same question! And with that we were off and running.

HMHCo: Spot appears to be an entirely new approach to storytelling through a digital application. Can you walk us through your thought process for developing such a unique concept?  

DW: When I studied apps, it seemed the people who made them were taking books and putting them on tablets -- or were trying to create new experiences but were still thinking of them like books. And it seemed to me that using the book as a model was pointless. A book does what it does better than anything else can.

Apps would only really get interesting as a storytelling medium when someone moved away from the book model and took advantage of the inherent properties of the device. So that’s what I set out to do.

HMHCo: It is evident from your numerous literary awards that you have excelled in the print illustration world. Could you tell us a bit about the development process of moving from print to digital and the challenges you experienced?

DW: One of my first big challenges was the concept of space in an app. How would I know where to end anything? The space seemed so vastly open, and trying to conceptually wrap my head around it was a bit overwhelming.

But the reality is that there are limitations to an app in the same way that there are parameters for a picture book, such as a fixed number of pages. In an app, there is only so much pixel space for assets, so decisions have to be made based on what there is room for. When there were things I had visualized one way, and it turned out there would be a space problem, the reality was that I had to find more creative means of including them.Spot

The pace of working in the digital world is such that I was creating the art as the app was being made from it. The story elements evolved as I worked. Ideas and images would pop up and force me to look at what was happening, and the exciting thing is that connections and possibilities would reveal themselves. Spot evolved on its own and became its own thing.


HMHCo: How do you think users will respond to this innovative new concept?

DW: I hope they’ll respond to it the way I like to get caught up in works of art, written or visual—by becoming immersed in another place, absorbed into the world that has been presented without letting go of expectations of being told a story. It’s there: go in and experience the elements and draw your own conclusions.

I’d like kids to enjoy as much as I do the experience of saying: What is that? What is going on, and what else might be going on? And of being able to follow the questions to other places —wherever imagination wants to take them.

My books reach a wide age range, being used and enjoyed on many different levels. In the same way, I want the youngest app users to be engaged as well as older kids, but that isn’t a limitation. I hope users of all ages will be absorbed and find their own stories.

David Wiesner’s Spot launches today in the App Store, along with free companion guides for parents and educators featuring discussion and writing prompts and activities for young learners. Take a peek at Spot’s five magical worlds in this trailer and behind the scenes preview with David.

The creator of many bestselling picture books, David is one of the world’s most celebrated visual storytellers. He is only the second person to have been awarded three Caldecott Medals—the nation’s highest illustration honor—for Tuesday, The Three Pigs, and Flotsam and three Caldecott Honors — for Free Fall, Sector 7, and Mr. Wuffles! His picture books have been published in more than nineteen countries and have won numerous awards and accolades. For more information, visit davidwiesner.com.

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