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Walter Wick's World: Hartford Author Painstakingly Creates Latest In Puzzle-Book Series


May 03, 2013

Can you you see what I see?

A princess, a robot, a colorful set, a crystal ball, a spaceship, two who just met.

A dreamer, an artist, a guy with a plan, a pleasantly puzzling Wick of a man.

That's Hartford's Walter Wick, the author of the internationally acclaimed "Do You See What I See" search-and-solve children's-book series that has just grown by one.

Titled "Out of This World" (Cartwheel Books, $13.99), the ninth in Wick's clever puzzle books has an element not seen in his others: a pair of new stars, a nameless princess and an anonymous robot. Their worlds collide in the imagination of a child sitting on a playroom floor.

"Having original characters is a new component in this book," said Wick, the soft-spoken award-winning photographer-turned-author. "And I definitely feel that this is one my best narratives. But that is complicated because there is so much that I love about my previous narratives, too."

Wick, 60, and his wife, Linda Chevron Wick, are well-known as philanthropists and community leaders in Hartford and beyond. Autographed copies of Wick's books are an auction staple at fundraisers and he often donates tours of his 12,000-square-foot, 1920-Hartford-fire-department-building-turned-studio. The tours include first-hand looks at completed sets used in the books, including those under construction, as well as the bins, drawers and boxes of spools, marbles, dice, plastic animals, whistles, charms, seashells and other doodads and trinkets that become part of his playful, elaborate and colorful collages.

Although he and his wife have no children, the studio is "a kindergarten classroom run amok," Wick says, with its tabletops and shelves of boats, castles, trains and other props used in his books. Besides the fully outfitted workshop, there is an art production area, a computer room, a kitchen and office space for four people. Downstairs contains large storage areas for bigger props and set construction materials that have accumulated during his long career.

The seemingly shy Wick insists that while his books have no morals or even messages, he does have an end in mind when it comes to nudging the imagination of a child.

"I am an advocate for looking and for finding meaning as well," Wick said.

And that's how he works. For example, he explains how a 5-inch robot memento from the Connecticut Science Center and a small plastic princess figurine he had used in one of his previous books became the main characters in his newest story.

"I had been working on the idea of a new book called 'Out of This World' for months, with the concept involving two different worlds, but was going nowhere with it," Wick said. "I was trying to invent worlds from scratch and I was sitting at my desk and noticed the princess and the robot that happened to both be there and thought, 'That's it! A story about a robot and a princess.' The idea had been in front of me the whole time."

A graduate of Connecticut's Paier College of Art, Wick began his creative career as a commercial photographer, eventually creating photo-illustrations for books and magazines.

More than two decades ago, in 1991, Wick collaborated with writer Jean Marzollo on the popular "I Spy" search-and-find picture books. His book "A Drop of Water' won a Boston Globe-Horn Book first prize and his "Walter Wick's Optical Tricks" was named one of the "best illustrated books" by The New York Times. He wrote his first "Can You See What I See?" book in 2002 with more than 6.5 million of the books now in print.

The newest book tells the tale of a Medieval-era princess who uses her crystal ball to see the future and a robot who foresees it with his spaceship-like time machine. And as any good tale for children will do, it becomes an adventure that begins with "Long long ago…" and ends with "Time for good night." Each of the 32 pages tout his trademark treasure trove of cleverly hidden objects, ranging from forks and camels to a magic wand and "a moon that's blue" as the story subtly unfolds.

The story unfolds seamlessly in the book. In real life, it was a bit more work.

With staff Randy Gilman, Michael Lokensgaard, Drew Mailhot, Lynne Steincamp, Brian Keely-Dubois, Dan Helt, Emily Cappa and his wife, the painstaking creations began about nine months ago, crafting detailed miniature three-dimensional sets that provide the lush, colorful, imaginative backdrop for the story of a robot crashing through a galaxy of items including three silver jacks, four marble planets, a swan, a hare and an aquatic pair, lands in a royal kingdom that includes, among other things, three nuts, four dice, a shovel, a rake and an upside down cake.

Considered the master when it comes to the two-dimensional, gravity–defying, candy bright sets that are family favorites, Wick's newest book is welcome to his fans, both pint-sized and grown up.

"I have 16-year-old twins, a 17-year-old and a three-year-old," said Bristol resident Heather Allen whose family members are longtime Wick fans.

"The books grow with the children," said Allen, who read them with her older children and is now doing the same with the youngest. "Even when they can't read they are captivated by the pictures and trying to find the objects. And as they got older, they could read the rhymes and find even more in the pictures and the story.

"I treasure those books for my children because they are not about computerized screen images that flash by but rather beautiful pictures than can be studied and enjoyed by all of us. The books are magical."

That magic does not come easy. Wick and company painstakingly build those gravity-defying, detail oriented sets that include everything from apples to zebras. In his new book, the potpourri of every day items are planted in scenes that bounce between outer space and the classic castle of the Middle Ages.

The challenge, Wick said, was to come up with characters and a story line would be inviting to both boys and girls.

"I had recently been shopping in at toy store and I realized how separated the boys toys and the girls toys are," said Wick. "Both the princess and the robot have such cultural symbols that kids are familiar with. I wanted the story to be inspired by toys kids would have in their homes and characters that they would all be attracted to."

That meant careful construction of the set featuring the robot's time machine and its control panel and to the pint-sized castle, one that was specially designed and constructed to make sure it did not look too "girly."

Wick loves that children often see more than adults do in his books, and in this one, the unexpected objects include a deli container that looks like a fountain and a vivid scene of what it would look like if a robot and his time machine really did crash through a pile of Legos and blocks and checkers and Wiffle balls.

And in it all, Wick tends to period details, incorporating replicas of fine Renaissance masterpieces, jesters, and knights along with electronics and industrial components, a dichotomy of cultural representations that add more depth and another facet to the storyline.

"I think this story is about contrasts," Wick said. "Boy versus girl, a real person versus a robot, old versus new, hard edge versus soft edge. The princess lives in a world and the robot in another. What helped me as I wrote this was that I did not have to invent those worlds. They are worlds kids are familiar with. Each character comes with visual motifs that children understand."

The book has been translated into Japanese, and Wick recently visited that country on a book tour. He is currently working a new "flip"-style search book, one in which scenes on each page will change when the folded flap is opened.

"I am not trying to teach them anything," Wick said about what his intent is as he creates art for his young audience. "I want to provide them with a rich environment of self-discovery because in addition to the 250 or so objects they search for in each book, they are always discovering a story.

"My books are a game that is valuable in early development because children learn to observe carefully rather than to glance quickly. My books give them a reason to look and discover a logic of their own."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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