I spy . . . a boy who doesn't like to read -- but grows up to create a series of best-selling books. A kid who doesn't do too well in school -- but who, as an adult, gets invited to speak to students all over the country. A youngster who likes making skateboards out of scrap wood and roller skates -- who's still, 40 years later, making neat stuff out of junk he finds lying around.
Meet Walter Wick, co-creator of the I Spy puzzle/riddle books and the creative genius, author and photographer behind the Can You See What I See? books, the newest of which ("Seymour and the Juice Box Boat," aimed at kids 3 to 5) comes out June 1. He has scads of books, CD-ROMs and even an HBO show to his name -- and he has more toys than you can shake a stick at.
Any way you look at it, Wick is a successful guy. But it wasn't clear when he was a kid that he'd end up that way. He says his childhood, spent in a small town in rural Connecticut, was happy, mostly because he was free to roam the nearby farm, woods and neighborhood -- and to let his imagination roam freely, too. His parents encouraged his tinkering, and he was always building, inventing and making things -- such as pogo sticks or stilts. But, he admits, he used up so much of his energy and brainpower on these efforts, he didn't have much left over for school.
When Walter was a teenager, his older brother introduced him to photography. Walter liked the mechanics of taking pictures, the challenge of getting a shot just right. He ended up going to art school to learn to be a professional photographer. One day he saw a copy of a magazine dedicated to games and puzzles, and he figured he could invent neat photo-puzzles of his own. He was right, and that magazine started to buy his work. Soon Wick was working with Jean Marzollo on the first I Spy book. (For that series, he takes the pictures, and she writes the rhyming riddles that send readers searching; in Can You See What I See?, Wick does both parts himself.)
Wick works in a huge studio with cardboard boxes stacked everywhere. Lots of these are labeled -- "rubber mammals," for instance -- so he and his assistants know where to find just the right rubber elephant (or lion, or whatever) when they need it. Wick used to go to flea markets in search of the little toys, blocks, cards, dice and other items that populate his photos, but nowadays he has so much stuff that he rarely needs to shop.
In the middle of the studio an enormous table -- the size of six table tennis tables put together -- recently held an entire city made of painted cardboard, deli containers and toys, all lit by more than 100 light bulbs of various sizes and colors. Wick photographed that city from all different angles and under different kinds of light. The pictures he took would later become the book "Can You See What I See? Dream Machine."
The photography is one of the last steps in creating his books. Wick starts by drawing all the scenes he hopes to create, linking the drawings so they tell a kind of story, inventing the puzzles he wants readers to solve and planning the materials he will need to make the pictures look like what he sees in his mind's eye. (In the Can You See books, all the pictures include a curious little character, created by Wick, named Seymour. Get it?)
Building the layout took five months. Wick and his assistants took hundreds of experimental photos to make sure they were getting everything just the way they wanted it. It's difficult, detailed work, but Wick doesn't mind.
"Almost all of this work feels like a continuation of the play I did as a child," he says. "It seems to me like I've never stopped looking at the world in that way, never lost the idea that if you could think it, you could make it."
-- Jennifer Huget