THE CREATIVE force behind David Wisniewski's innovative picture books was a familiar one -- at least the way he tells it.
''It wasn't a matter of inspiration; it was a matter of paying the mortgage,'' said Wisniewski (pronounced Wiz-NESS-key). ''My wife, Donna, and I were touring with our shadow puppet theater until 1985, when our second child was born. We couldn't keep traveling; we had to find another way to make a living.''
Donna, a graphic designer, began to do free-lance work from their Bowie home. David began experimenting with cut-paper artwork, and the result is stunning -- one of the most original styles of illustration and storytelling to come along in quite some time.
Its genesis was hardly as simple as Wisniewski, 38, makes it sound.
His background provides clues to his muse. A 1973 graduate of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Clown College, he spent three years as a clown. He then returned home to Washington, D.C., and got a job as a puppeteer in a troupe run by Donna Harris. They married six months later and formed the Clarion Shadow Theatre in 1980.
Then came the kids -- Ariana, now almost 10, and Alexander, 6 -- and the need to work from home. David Wisniewski's first children's book, ''The Warrior and the Wise Man'' (Lothrop), was published in 1989, followed by ''Elfwyn's Saga'' (Lothrop) in 1990. His newest book is ''Rain Player,'' (Clarion Books, $15.95, ages 5-9).
But again, it hasn't been easy.
''With my first book, all of my preliminary sketches were rejected,'' he said. ''My second book, 12 of the 16 were rejected. With 'Rain Player,' only four or five were rejected. And the book I'm working on now, only one was rejected, so I'm getting better at this.''
Wisniewski often talks to school groups, and when students hear of the rejections, they ask, ''Didn't you get angry?''
''It helps not to have a big ego,'' he tells them.
3' Each book has taken about 18 months
to create. For ''Rain Player,'' he used a No. 11 X-Acto knife and more than 800 blades to cut the designs, which were layered on top of each other, separated by foam core board, and then photographed to energize each two-page spread with light and shadow. The result is breathtaking.
Like his two earlier books, ''Rain Player'' is an original folk tale that Wisniewski wrote after extensive research. ''The Warrior and the Wise Man'' draws on Japanese culture, and ''Elfwyn's Saga'' is based on Viking lore.
''Rain Player'' is based on Mayan legend. Its hero is a boy named Pik who challenges his people's belief in prophecy. He angers Chac, the rain god, and then tries to earn his forgiveness through a game of pok-a-tok. It's a combination of soccer and basketball, where players try to send a solid rubber ball through a hoop without using their hands or feet.
''One of the things that struck me the most, in researching the culture, was its fatalism,'' Wisniewski said. ''Here's a boy who, in his insolent way, gets into trouble. But in extracting himself from it, he proves it is more powerful to be an original thinker than it is to go along with the majority.''
Wisniewski's next book is about Sundiata, the national hero of Mali. Part of the inspiration came when he was talking to kids in an inner-city reading program in Baltimore.
''They asked me how I got my ideas, and I was trying to show how sometimes one idea gets you rolling,'' he said. He told them about Timbuktu in Mali, which was one of the great African trading empires in the 1300s. What was the greatest import into that city?
''The kids guessed gold,'' he said. ''In fact, it was books. At that time Mali was the richest country in the world . . . and Timbuktu was the site of the greatest university in Africa. When the kids heard it was books, they just broke into a round of applause, because here they were in a reading program, getting involved with books.''
Wisniewski's work should help even more kids discover the riches books can offer.
A few other books involving Native American myths are worth noting.
* ''The Flame of Peace: A Tale of the Aztecs,'' by Deborah Nourse Lattimore (HarperTrophy paperback, $5.95, ages 5-8), is illustrated beautifully using authentic symbols to complement the fast-moving story. It's the tale of Two Flint, a boy who uses his wits to outfox demons and eventually bring peace to his people.
* ''All of You was Singing,'' by Richard Lewis, art by Ed Young (Atheneum, $13.95, all ages), is gorgeous. Young, who was born in China, received a Caldecott honor for ''The Emperor and the Kite'' in 1967, and his rendition of this poetic Aztec myth uses dramatic colors and collages framed by textured borders.