David Wiesner, Sector 7 (Houghton Mifflin, 1999)
Just now I was over at the house of two of my closest friends, who brought to my attention this book that their eldest son, my godson, had taken out of the library. Normally I don't pay too much attention to children's picture books, especially when there are no words accompanying the pictures at all, but something about the quality of the artwork in Sector 7 by David Wiesner compelled me to pay close attention to every frame of the story, and then to run home and write a review of it.
The illustrations in Sector 7 owe a heavy debt at first glance to Norman Rockwell, but Wiesner adds his own playfully surreal touches to create a completely unique, innovative, and memorable style. In wordlessly depicting a small boy's encounter with a group of personified clouds, Wiesner creates a timeless fairy tale that is truly fantastic in both senses of the word.
The story begins with a boy on a class field trip to the observation deck of the Empire State Building. The sky is overcast, however, and to the inattentive eye there is little to observe. Soon, though, the boy is greeted and befriended by a cloud, which has somehow entered the observation deck itself. The boy climbs onto the cloud's back, and is borne away to this great building in the sky with the imposing words "7 Sector 7: Cloud Dispatch Center" on the front. Here clouds of all kinds cumulus, stratus, cirrus, the works are sent forth to various locales and then called back in. A schedule of arrivals and departures towers over the main atrium, just as it does in any large railway station. People are present at this station, designing and producing the clouds which are then sent on their way. However, the clouds are unhappy with their boring, puffy blueprints, and ask the boy for some assistance.
The boy turns out to be quite capable at drawing fish, and soon clouds resembling large fish in striking detail are being created and dispatched. Angry at the break with convention, the cloud makers track down the boy and see to it that he's promptly carried back to the Empire State Building. This is no great loss for the boy, because he's made some lasting friendships, and because he arrives in time to see the grand spectacle of fish clouds parading across the New York sky.
Sector 7 works on many different levels, including a few that are probably beyond the grasp of its target audience. Taken on its own, the story is intriguing enough to warrant serious attention and merit from adults as well as children. The fact that the story is successfully told without dialogue or text of any kind, leaving child and adult readers to fill in the details however they see fit, would be an impressive accomplishment even if the illustrations were merely ordinary. However, there is nothing ordinary about these drawings, whose intense vividness leaves the reader with no disbelief left to suspend. In particular, Wiesner's clouds are so palpably real that I was left wondering how I could possibly have failed to notice the fish clouds as they sailed past the window of my New York apartment on whatever day this happened. Perhaps it's even happened more than once.