Growing up in Miami, Florida, I’ve always had many opportunities to participate in some amazing cultural experiences. We have quite a few museums in town, for example, including the Lowe Museum that is operated by the University of Miami. This summer, this museum is exhibiting the retrospective of award-winning children’s writer and illustrator, Walter Wick. If you can’t place his name immediately, he’s the illustrator of the I Spy series and the writer/illustrator of the Can You See What I See? series and Hey, Seymour! (amongst other works). The exhibit opened on June 22 (an auspicious day, considering it’s my birthday), and will continue on until September 24, 2017. For those who will be in the area during this time, here’s the link to the museum’s website if you’d like more information.
As someone who studies and teaches children’s literature (ChLit), and who has a particular interest in visual rhetoric, having the chance to see the exhibit in person (it’s been showcased in various museums over the past decade or so) was amazing. Having the chance to tour it with Walter Wick himself, though, was even better than I imagined. While I don’t want to give too many details away (definitely go see it yourself if you have the chance), I thought I’d devote this blog post to sharing a few of my favorite pieces from the exhibit as well as a few behind-the-scenes details I learned from Walter* throughout the tour.
*Side note: How I was able to tour the exhibit with Walter is a long story that also ties into why I’m referring to him as “Walter” and not “Wick”, as is usual when talking about authors/illustrators in this context.
Considering Walter’s illustrations are “picture-puzzles,” it’s not exactly surprising that a few of the photographs showcased in the exhibit feature mirrors. How many marbles are actually in the photographs with multiple mirrors placed at different angles? How long does it take to find all the small objects listed alongside a photograph like the one below?
Or, my favorite of the mirror bunch, how many “magical” reflections can you find in the Alice in Wonderland-themed photograph featured below? And, if you can find all 32, can you also figure out the chronological order of the events that took place in this scene?*
*As these pictures are both a bit blurry, you can also go to this site and enlarge the photograph.
While I love the marble and animal toys photographs for their colorful and confusing nature, the meta element of the Alice photograph really called to me as a ChLit student/teacher. Considering the sequel to Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland is titled Through the Looking Glass, what can be more appropriate for an Alice picture-puzzle than using mirrors to create impossible, whimsical reflections? Trying the find all the inconsistencies is very much like falling into a visual rabbit hole, which I really loved.
The large number of objects that appear in the illustrations are hardly surprising considering the goal of the photographs is to hide specific objects in plain sight for children to find. What I hadn’t considered before seeing the exhibit, however, was how the backgrounds that these objects were placed on were created or added to the photographs. I hadn’t thought about whether the castle or boardwalk in the background actually physically existed when the picture was taken. Maybe Photoshop was heavily used instead? As it turns out, while Walter has taken advantage of digital tools in his more recent publications, he also creates models of the landscapes and settings that appear in the photographs. Below is an example of a model alongside the finished illustration in which it appears. Seeing multiple examples of these models alongside the photos of them was really interesting, as I could see how depth and scale come into play when taking the photographs.
Here’s another photo, which also gives you a sense of the size of some of the models in relation to the size of the book illustrations in which they are featured.
One final detail I want to mention in this post is the overall narrative aspects of the Can You See What I See? books. As someone who has written multiple papers about books that heavily feature illustrations (picture books, illustrated editions, graphic novels), as well as having taught these visual genres to students in ENG 170, I really appreciated getting a behind-the-scenes look into the authorial (illustratorial?) intentions behind books like Can You See What I See? Out of This World (2013). As a picture-puzzle picture book, it can seem as if this book (and the others in the series) begins and ends with the task of searching carefully for the objects listed in the margins. But as Walter explained, he gives a lot of thought to the narrative he wants to tell through the puzzles, as well as how the narrative will be visually structured (his explanation of the visual structure of Can You See What I See? Treasure Ship was particularly interesting, as I could see connections to Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are).
In the case of Out of This World, in which a robot time-travels in his space ship and crash lands in front of a princess and the castle she calls home, Walter revealed that his inspiration for this book came from seeing the false rigidity of “boy” and “girl” toys in stores. By the end of this book, it’s clear that this supposed gender difference when playing does not exist for the children who have “created” the plot of this book by putting together and playing with toys often marketed separately to girls and boys. Below is a photo of the last page spread of this book, so you can get a better sense of how Walter’s inspiration and the narrative he visually created comes together. For anyone reading this post who’s interested in teaching or writing about the connection between toys and gender in children’s books and the real-world marketplace, I’d definitely recommend checking out this book.
There’s so much more to discuss about the exhibit, but this post has already become pretty lengthy. If you can’t check out the exhibit in person, I definitely recommend checking out Walter’s website and his books. Among other treasures on the site, you can see videos like this one, where the machines Walter has created for his illustrations are shown to actually work as depicted.
Here are some other links that might be of interest, as well:
Walter Wick’s blog
Walter Wick’s Instagram: walterwickstudio
Scholastic’s Can You See What I See? website
So, to wrap up this post:
Which Walter Wick book is your favorite and why?
Talk Soon(er than usual)!