The wordless picturebook Free Fall, which depicts a child’s drift into a surreal dream world, is an early work by the American picturebook artist David Wiesner. Wiesner has won the prestigious Caldecott Medal three times, with another three Caldecott Honor awards, including one for Free Fall.
The colour palette of this night-time adventure story is gentle soft browns, greens, blues and yellows, and some of Wiesner’s images have echoes of the graphic artist M. C. Escher’s mathematically inspired tessellations and impossible perspectives. Wiesner’s drawing style in Free Fall is naturalistic, and the book begins with a white-bordered image of a boy in bed, drifting off to sleep. He is clutching a large book, which we later learn is an atlas, and beside him are a bedside lamp and a half-opened box.
On the following spread, on the left-hand page, we see the child fully asleep, with the box now fallen open and revealing a hint of chess pieces. But the right-hand page shows the boy’s chequered blanket morphing into a patchwork of fields, above which floats a single map from the atlas – like a flying carpet from an Arabian tale, leading the way into the dream world. Interestingly, the right-hand edge of this image is full-bleed, i.e. it does not have a white border. This is because the dreamscape section of the book – the bulk of its pages – forms a continuous frieze that links each image together to make a single, long, picture. Given that most dreams have a tendency to mutate seamlessly from one scene into another, this is a subtle but highly appropriate visual device.
Gradually we see the chess pieces transform into life-size characters of queens, bishops, pawns and knights, with the boy in his blue pyjamas wandering among them. From here on, the dream world becomes increasingly strange. Empty suits of armour release clouds of white birds, castle walls transform into a fearsome dragon and trees change into the spines and leaves of books. The boy falls through one of these tomes and emerges enormous, while the chess characters shrink beside him. Wiesner’s image of this is reminiscent of both Gulliver in Lilliput (from Jonathan Swift’s 1726 novel Gulliver’s Travels Into Several Remote Nations of the World) and of Alice after she has consumed the ‘EAT ME’ cake (in Lewis Carroll’s 1865 story Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland). Eventually, ocean waves resolve into the chequered blanket again and the boy appears back in bed. The final page – white-bordered on all four sides like the initial image – shows the child waking in daylight, normality restored.
Free Fall is a book that can be read on different levels. According to your point of view, this is either the stuff of nightmares or of imaginative creativity. It could be construed as the boy’s subconscious processing the experiences of his day, or as the muddled dreams of a child with a fever. Throughout, there is a strong sense of ‘falling’, both into sleep and into other worlds drawn from classic literature. In addition to these texts, there are also visual references to the legend of George and the Dragon and to timeless fairytale motifs such as castles, towers, mazes and forests. But, despite the book’s literary and folk tale connections, words would be superfluous in Free Fall as it is really about the haphazard, non-verbal, way the mind processes information and images while we are asleep. It is a richly conceived work of art and a great introduction to David Wiesner’s other picturebook titles, including the wordless Tuesday (1991) and Flotsam (2006).