A Look Behind the Scenes at Walter Wick's Can You See What I See?
Walter Wick is the photographer of the best-selling I Spy series as well as the author and photographer of the best-selling Can You See What I See? series and award-winning science books such as A Drop of Water and Walter Wick's Optical Tricks. In this article, Walter's editor, Grace Maccarone, writes about Seymour and the Juice Box Boat, a search-and-find storybook for preschoolers, the author, and the prop named Seymour.
As editor of the I Spy series, Walter Wick's Optical Tricks, A Drop of Water, and the Can You See What I See? series, I have known Walter Wick since 1991. Working with Walter is so much fun I shouldn't be paid for it. Every time he delivers a photograph, I feel like a kid on Christmas Day!
Seymour and the Juice Box Boat is a slight departure for Walter. While he created the photographs in his other books for children of all ages, he created Seymour specifically for preschoolers.* Seymour and the Juice Box Boat is compelling, interactive, humorous, and educational. I feel it belongs in the company of great books such as Brown Bear and The Very Hungry Caterpillar.
Young children will love searching Walter's colorful photographs for a variety of objects from tools to spools to plastic pigs. And they will enjoy following Seymour through his busy day as he gathers the materials he needs to build a boat. While working on the book, I often thought about how much fun parents and children would have as they read this book together. I pictured a child sitting on Mommy's lap and beaming with pride as he or she found the hidden objects. And I thought about the fun I would have had reading the book with my daughter when she was a little girl. (I did share the "f & gs" with my daughter who is sixteen now and no longer fits on my lap but remains a loyal Walter Wick fan; of course, she loves the book!)
So what's Walter Wick like? Walter is a tall, attractive man who's totally wrapped up in creating wonderful books for children. It gives Walter great joy to help children discover the thinker, the creator, the artist, and the scientist within themselves. After he completes a book, he eagerly awaits feedback from family, friends, reviewers, and above all, the children: those who write to Walter and those who attend his presentations. Walter invites participation even when he speaks to large groups. He will ask a child to explain the workings of the balloon popper, a Rube Goldberg-like construction that appears in I Spy School Days. And he will show a photograph and ask the children to hypothesize how he created the effect. Often, Walter will learn that a kid who has correctly answered one of his questions is, for the most part, an unsuccessful student. Many children who may not succeed at reading or math discover that they are smart, after all, because they can figure things out. Walter is always thrilled when that happens.
Walter's studio is a magical place. A renovated firehouse, it is as well organized and as visually pleasing as any one of his photographs. Contemporary art lines the hallways. In one of the hallways are shelves of the antique children's books that Walter collects. Walter takes his photographs in a main work area, a large space surrounded by maple cabinets and high windows. While Walter is working on a book, the room is filled with sets on set tables, prop tables with boxes of props, cameras, lights, shadow makers, and more. And, of course, there is a CD player and a collection of CDs that Walter and his staff listen to as they work. Walter has two full time staff people, and often employs model makers to help him build sets. A stylist, antique collector, and devotee of contemporary art, Walter's wife Linda Cheverton-Wick contributes artistic insight and manages the business as well.
In addition to this room are two well-lit, well-ventilated painting rooms and a wood shop. The wood shop holds manual and electric saws, drills, hammers, clamps, an electric sander, a lathe, 2 x 4s, and more. There are two storage rooms. Plastic containers, labeled and neatly arranged on shelves, contain Walter's huge collections of objects: race cars, trucks, vintage cars and trucks, people, tiny toys, vintage toys, motorcycles, beads, buttons, and so on.
It takes Walter five months to a year to plan and execute each book. For some books, such as Seymour and the Juice Box Boat, Dream Machine, A Drop of Water, and I Spy Treasure Hunt, Walter creates thumbnail sketches of the entire book before he starts building sets and taking photographs. For other books, such as Can You See What I See? and Cool Collections, Walter plans each photograph individually. He could be working on the fifth photograph and have no idea what the twelfth photograph will be. It may take Walter anywhere from a few days to a few months to construct a set, then search for the right objects to populate it. Sometimes he draws from his own collection; sometimes he shops for new items or borrows them; sometimes he makes them.
What never ceases to amaze me about Walter is his attention to detail. When it came time for Walter to create the bead boy who would become Seymour, Walter took out all his beads and experimented. Walter loves primary colors: yellow, red, and blue comprise the color scheme of the series. He used wires and pipe cleaners to connect the beads because he wanted to be able to bend and pose the figure. His first Seymour was around four inches high, but Walter felt he was too big. So he searched his bead collection for smaller beads and made a scaled-down version. The result was a two-inch character that looked more boyish. Seymour's head is a yellow plastic bead, and his blue eyes are tiny glass beads called seed beads. It required a great deal of patience and dexterity to bore tiny holes into Seymour's head and to glue the beads on. Seymour has no mouth: he is a man of no words, but of vision and action. His tuft of hair is a red pipe cleaner. Seymour's body is a wooden bead, and his collar is a blue bead, cut in half. It truly can be said that Seymour wears his heart on his sleeve as his upper arms are red hearts. His thighs, calves, and forearms are made of plastic beads called rice beads, and his knees are glass pony-style beads. His feet are wooden light bulbs, sliced in half. Coated wires connect Seymour's arms and legs.
Seymour first appeared as a mascot in Can You See What I See? In Dream Machine, Seymour became more prominent as the guide who leads the reader to the nighttime world of Dream City and back. Seymour and the Juice Box Boat marks Seymour's emergence as a full-fledged character.
After appearing in three books, Seymour's perfect bead body has begun to show the signs of age. It was time for Walter to create a replacement Seymour. But as Walter gathered his materials, he realized that he didn't have any more of the yellow rice beads. Walter and his staff conducted a worldwide search for the yellow beads. They searched craft shops, catalogs and the Internet, but to no avail. Walter had to make his own. It was an immense chore. Not only did the beads have to be the right size, shape, and color, but they had to have just the right texture and sheen. He made a rubber mold and filled it with plastic, dyed to match the original beads. To me, the homemade beads are a perfect match though Walter is still reluctant to use them.
The last time I visited the studio, I had the sense that Seymour has become more than just a prop to Walter. In fact, when Walter relocated his studio, rather than pack Seymour with the rest of the props, the bead boy got to ride in Walter's car right up front with Walter and his wife.
*Though the I Spy Little Books are intended for young children, the photographs used in those books originally appeared in previously published I Spy big books.