going to the dogs with leslie mcguirk and alex von bidder

Note: This is a polite post about a very polite book. Please wipe your paws before reading and wag your tail whenever one of our guests says something especially witty or charming.

Leslie and Alex at Books of Wonder, NYC, September 2009.

Welcome, friends!

Thank you for grooming yourselves and arriving precisely on time. Your table is ready!

Today’s menu features a mini-review and chat with the creators of this year’s most fetching picture book, Wiggens Learns His Manners at the Four Seasons Restaurant (Candlewick, 2009). The story of how author/illustrator Leslie McGuirk and restaurateur Alex von Bidder let the Four Seasons go to the dogs has set tongues wagging on Bark Avenue and beyond.

These two kindred spirits, one who spends her days in a Florida beachside studio writing, painting and managing her own design company; the other, a busy, illustrious Top Dog running NYC’s famous power lunch landmark eatery (what Town and Country deemed, “Favorite Restaurant in the World”), overwhelmingly agree on one crucial thing: good manners matter. Lucky for us, because America is currently suffering from a rude epidemic. Wiggens is precisely what the doctor ordered (after truffles and escargot), so make yourself comfy, put on your favorite bib, and enjoy today’s feast!

 APPETIZER (a little about the book):


You don’t have to be a dog lover to take a liking to rascally, rowdy Wiggens, a chocolate labrador puppy who’s got a lot to learn when it comes to good behavior. On the advice of the Chi-waa-waa (oldest and wisest dog in Manhattan), Wiggens’s distraught parents send him to the Four Seasons Restaurant, where dogs from all over the world go to practice their manners. There, he and three other labs flourish under the tutelage of a handsome St. Bernard, whose barrel contains the spirit of helping others.

Ten lessons are served up on Four Seasons signature plates, emphasizing courtesy, respect, kindness, patience, restraint, and the importance of expressing gratitude. The charming narrative is accompanied by Leslie’s winsome gouache illos, which are chock full of giggle-inducing speech bubbles to amp up the fun. There are so many hilarious asides and little touches that speak volumes: hoity toity poodles, grumbly bulldogs, pups doing yoga poses and chanting, guardian angel dogs whispering encouragement, celebrity dog sightings (Britney Spaniel), a display of weird foods and the brilliant Tail-O-Meter.

St. Bernard and lab pups in the Pool Room.

The real Four Seasons Pool Room (photo by BrooksofSheffield).

Because of the multi-layered nature of the book, which can be “read” via the main text, the subtext of the illustrations, the ten lesson summaries, and the varying levels of quirky humor, this story/guide will appeal to readers of all ages. I especially like how each lesson is gently conveyed within the context of the story — displaying the bad behavior, its implications, and then suggestions for improvement. Those familiar with Leslie’s Tucker books will appreciate Wiggens as an expanded showcase for her child-centric animal drawings, which capture a wide range of emotions and personalities via amusing facial expressions and posturing. With each little tail wag and pink tongue, her love of dogs shines through.

Make no bones about it, you’ll likely gobble up this tasty tail (wink) in one fell swoop, sit up, and beg for more — and if you faithfully practice these lessons, you’ll never be in the dog house again.


 MAIN COURSE (Q&A with Leslie and Alex):

Thanks so much for visiting today, Leslie and Alex! Please tell us how the book came about. What was it like collaborating for the first time?

Leslie: I met Alex in Mexico, where I was teaching a workshop on creativity and I found his spirit to be very similar to mine — playful yet wise. He had such elegant manners, too, so when a friend suggested I do a book on manners, I said, “I know the perfect person to work with!” Fortunately, he loved the idea, and it was a total joy to work with him.

Alex: Leslie and I talk the same language and I think I was telling her about my teaching a dining manners class for adults at NYU; she added that one of her passions is to encourage grandparents and grandchildren to do things together, e.g., read books. Voilà, the idea was born. The challenge for me was that publishing takes sooo long compared to preparing a fine meal.

(To Leslie): Did you get to spend a fair amount of time in the restaurant soaking up the ambience and tasting some of the “weird foods” included in the story?

Leslie: Yes, I was so lucky to have Alex allow me into not only the kitchen, but also to meet the characters that go into making the place what it is. And then, of course, to sketch and observe the surroundings and diners. I have to admit it was rather daunting to think that I could pull this off! And I am so happy with the way it turned out.

Four Seasons entrance, 99 E. 52nd Street, NYC (photo source).

Alex: Leslie captured the spirit of the Four Seasons and its characters beautifully. Just yesterday, a customer told me about seeing the magic of this special place on every page of “Wiggens.”

Who wrote all the text for the speech bubbles?

Leslie: Alex and I worked on every little detail of the text together. He was fantastic at writing a children’s book, even though it was his first. He just “got it” from a very natural place within himself. I can’t wait to do another book with him. I think we make a great team!

Alex: Two minds who think like 8-year-olds come up with a lot of funny stuff; we had a lot of laughs, a wonderful complement to working “seriously.”

Do you have a favorite spread from the book? (Leslie) could you briefly explain how you created it?

Leslie: I have two favorites. The scene in the downstairs lobby, with the stairs . . . and then the bar scene, which took me 3 weeks to paint. I just did a ton of sketches from being there and from photos. It took me awhile to find the right style. I have tons of paper to show the actual process. It was not simple. There is a lot that goes into a children’s book of this nature. There are many layers to this book.

Alex: Yes, the lobby art is cool! And the one with the doorman welcoming Wiggens and his parents, but nothing beats the “tail-o-meter.” 🙂

(Some of Leslie’s sketches):



Who thought of making Wiggens a chocolate lab? Is his character based on a real dog, the St. Bernard on a real person? Who decided which breeds would be portrayed?

Leslie: Wiggens is a chocolate lab because it is the only dog which comes with a food in its name!!! I have a dog named Wiggens. I picked that name because it is rather unusual, to say the least. I wanted this dog to be memorable. And the St. Bernard is Alex! Alex is from Switzerland, so, of course this soul saving dog was the perfect fit. I mostly decided which breeds to draw, but Alex was keen on making sure I put in the Park Avenue Poodles.

Alex: Yes, to all of Leslie’s answers. My favorites are the grumbling bulldogs.

What’s the worst case of bad manners you’ve ever witnessed in a restaurant?

Leslie: I think just rudeness to the waiters — barking orders, so to speak!

Alex: Snapping fingers, which of course dogs would never do :-). Sometimes bad manners can be funny, too, like when customers yell at us for not finding their reservation and then they discover they made it in a different name, after having been very unkind to us :-).

Four Seasons apple tart (photo by Adam Kuban).

Please tell us about your dogs and how they inspired your work on this book.

Leslie: I have three dogs — Wiggens, a 14-year-old Norfolk Terrier; Guy, a terrier Shih Tzu mix from the humane society; and Pumpkin, another rescue from Hurricane Katrina who is a Mississippi mutt. They completely amuse me, so their little personalities are in this book for sure.

Do you have a favorite restaurant? What do you usually order there?

Leslie: Of course, the Four Seasons! It’s magical and I order whatever Alex tells me is good!

Alex: My favorite restaurants are the ones run by friends of mine. The closest is just up the street, “La Grenouille,” which translates into “The Frog.” Its owner is Charles Masson and just like Leslie’s order, mine is whatever delicious dish Charles wants to serve me.

This question is for Leslie: Did you learn anything especially interesting or surprising about a restaurateur’s life as a result of working with Alex?


Leslie: I learned that he works very very hard to keep many people happy. He is a master. I can’t say enough nice things about him. You will have to meet him to see for yourself. An extraordinary human on this earth.

Alex: I totally agree, of course :-).

What are you working on now?

Leslie: I collect rocks that come in the shapes of letters and numbers and objects. I have the entire alphabet after 10 years of hunting. The book I am putting together is called When Rocks Sing, or something like that. I want it to be an adult gift book and also for kids. Also working on the next TUCKER book: Tucker in Love, for Valentine’s Day. It comes out in 2010 with Candlewick. And I hope to do another Wiggens book with Alex. We can teach other things, too!

*Jama swoons over alphabet rocks*


DESSERT (Sweet Extras):

Visit the special website devoted to Wiggens Learns His Manners at the Four Seasons Restaurant, with blurbs from famous fans, reviews, and more!

 The official publisher book trailer is here.

Learn more about Leslie and her children’s books (including the popular Tucker series) at her official website. Did you know she is a famous designer in Japan, and that her art graces at least 800 products?!

You must visit the Four Seasons website! Don’t miss the fascinating video,”The Ultimate Power Lunch.” It includes a brief history of the restaurant, interviews with Alex and co-owner, Julian Niccolini and other staff members, a peek at the Pool and Grill Rooms, the kitchen, and juicy stories about some of the patrons. Known for its beautiful architecture, interior design, award winning new American cuisine and celebrity clientele — wall street titans, entrepeneurs, politicians, entertainers, et.al., the Four Seasons is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

Alex is also co-author, with John F. Mariani, of The Four Seasons: A History of America’s Premier Restaurant (Smithmark Publishers, 1999).

 Bone Appetit!


“‘Build something new. Take care of something old. Think of either while petting your dog.’ I like taking care of old buildings, old boats, and old friends.” ~ Alex von Bidder’s comment on memorable lines from a book he’d read.

*Photos and sketches copyright © 2009 Leslie McGuirk. All rights reserved.

WIGGENS LEARNS HIS MANNERS AT THE FOUR SEASONS RESTAURANT. Text copyright © 2009 by Leslie McGuirk and Alex von Bidder. Illustrations
copyright © 2009 by Leslie McGuirk. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, Massachusetts. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2009 Jama Rattigan of jama rattigan’s alphabet soup. All rights reserved.

10 thoughts on “going to the dogs with leslie mcguirk and alex von bidder

  1. What a wonderful creation! You know, this blog is very bad for my pocketbook and strained shelf space. 😉

    I keep thinking I read a (very old) book with a “Wiggens” main character when I was a child, but I have absolutely no recollection as to what it was about. 😛


  2. Same here. The name does sound familiar, doesn’t it? But then, maybe I’m confusing it with Uncle Wiggily, or Higgins or even Henry Huggins. And of course there’s Jane Yolen’s book, Piggins.


  3. Delightful! And I want a Four Seasons apple tart — and the ice cream to go with it.

    Great interview! (And, egads, I can’t imagine someone barking at a waiter. Awful!)



  4. I’d love one of those apple tarts too! Unfortunately, I have witnessed rudeness to servers before. Sometimes when people have had too much to drink, they lose all sense of decorum!


  5. Tanita Says 🙂

    What a gorgeous, gorgeous book! Candlewick is putting out some great stuff this year.

    And the restaurant! — *sigh* — SOMEDAY…


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