Caldecott out of the blue Literature: Picture book of centuries-old legend surprises author with contemporary acclaim.


David Wisniewski was preparing to bite the bullet and put up bathroom molding after breakfasting with his wife and kids at his Frederick home Monday when the phone rang, offering a pretty good reason to delay the project again.

That very morning, his sixth book, "Golem," was singled out for the gold star of children's picture books -- the 1997 Randolph Caldecott Medal.

Wisniewski didn't even know he was a contender. "Can you make a press conference at 9: 30 a.m.?" the caller from the American Library Association asked. It was 8: 20 a.m. He was still in his pajamas.

Ten minutes later the former Ringling Bros. clown and puppeteer was weaving down I-270 with his wife, Donna, toward the ALA's winter meeting at the Washington Convention Center and 15 minutes of fame.

Wisniewski was one of two authors honored Monday. The ALA Monday also awarded E. L. Konigsburg of Jacksonville, Fla., with the 1997 Newbery Medal for children's writing for her book "The View From Saturday." It was the second Newbery prize for Konigsburg, who also won in 1968. The pair will be presented with the awards at the ALA's annual conference in June in San Francisco.

"Golem," Wisniewski's 32-page picture book, is a retelling of a classic Jewish folk tale set in Prague. The book's scenes are illustrated with paper cutouts, usually of many layers, and arranged so that when photographed they cast shadows. The pages have the illusion of a pop-up book.

But, he says, "This is a lot more serious. I'm pleased that something that does have so much weight got the medal," he said.

Quite the honor, too, for a theater performer who made cold calls for three months in search of free-lance illustration jobs after his second child was born in 1985.

"Golem" is the story of a rabbi who creates a statue of clay to protect his people. This clay man without a soul does indeed offer protection, but eventually he gets out of control. The emperor guarantees the protection of Jews in the ghetto, but the rabbi must pay a price -- the statue must be destroyed.

Although it is a picture book, "Golem" is geared to third- and fourth-graders. There's nothing black-and-white about the tale -- lots of grays about good and evil, power and persecution, fighting with physical force. Tradeoffs. Is it even appropriate for kids?

"I think children are not given credit for deep thinking," Wisniewski says.

People use the word "interesting" when they comment about his book, he says. At first the word annoyed him -- it sounded too noncommittal. Too nice. But it grew on him just as the book has grown on readers. It offers opportunities to discuss any number of moral dilemmas.

Each of Wisniewski's books is steeped in a culture or tradition -- the first was set in medieval Japan; others have been staged in Mali, amid Mayan Indians, and in the Pacific Northwest. Except for "Golem," which is based on a 400-year-old legend, all are original stories and have found large audiences in public schools and libraries. "Golem" was first published in October by Clarion, a division of Houghton Mifflin, with a run of 15,000. It is headed for a second printing.

An Army kid whose family traveled, Wisniewski dropped out of the University of Maryland College Park after a semester and graduated in 1972 from Ringling College. He performed in the circus for two years.

But it was as a puppeteer in tandem with his wife, Donna, that he learned to write and compose. He and Donna performed in schools and theaters throughout Maryland and surrounding states until 1985, when the birth of a second child led them to look for new careers. The couple's children, Ariana and Aleksander, are now 15 and 11, respectively.

Wisniewski eased into graphic design and illustration. As a free-lancer, he drew for obscure government treatises and for magazines and newspapers, including the former Baltimore Evening Sun. He published his first book in 1989. His books have become popular enough to allow him to support his family.

Still, he never imagined he could contemplate his bathroom project Monday and a national television audience Tuesday. But there he was, on the "Today" show yesterday, explaining his unusual graphic designs. "It was like a Kabuki dance," he says. "Everything is choreographed. You are in a niche for the day."

Wisniewski is stepping back into an old niche -- puppeteering -- for the month of April, when he and his wife will perform "Golem" as a full-length shadow play twice a day in the Smithsonian's Discovery Theater.

Pub Date: 2/19/97

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