A Drop of Water: Walter Wick's 1997 BGHB Nonfiction Award Speech

I am very grateful to receive this prestigious award. The circumstances by which I came to do a science book called A Drop of Water makes this award all the more special to me. I would like to tell you why.

I was never a very good student. My grades were below average; I was a slow, reluctant reader; and I had a hard time finishing my homework.

It didn’t help that my siblings excelled at school. My fourth-grade teacher wrote on my report card: “Walter’s a nice boy, but his mind seems to be somewhere else. He’s not his older brothers.” Fortunately, I had skills that my parents and teachers came to appreciate. I loved art projects, I excelled at drawing, and I loved to tinker and build. My father always had a lot of junk in the basement, which mortified my mother. But I would spend hours down there melting things. I made skateboards from old roller skates, I made a pogo stick from an old spring, and I made a unicycle from my little sister’s tricycle. (I’m not sure that she appreciated my talents.)

I discovered photography when I was in high school. Photography had it all. Picture making and gadgetry all rolled into one. Later, at the Paier College of Art, I studied both photojournalism and landscape photography. But I preferred the slow, deliberate discipline of landscape photography, and the first serious landscapes I photographed were of water.

At that time I thought nothing of the science of water; I was responding to whatever caught my eye. Water gliding over rocks, clouds reflecting in rain pools, a galaxy of air bubbles trapped in black ice, and so on. It was intoxicating to search for dreamlike images along a meandering stream. But I needed a job.

To earn money, I started doing commercial photography. I fully expected to quit after a year and go back to doing real photography. But something unexpected happened. I became fascinated with the technical challenges of studio work, which, as it turned out, required skills I already had: patience and a knack for tinkering. My commercial photography stint lasted twenty years.

During that time, my aesthetic and technical skills grew. I was also learning science. The refraction of light, once an abstraction in my school books, became concrete as a result of direct observations in my daily work. Whether it was an optical problem I had to solve one day, or an optical phenomenon I would exploit the next, it was always fascinating. Thus, through the love of photography, I learned to love Science.

A curious side-effect was that I started to collect nineteenth-century science books with strange titles such as The Fairy Land of Science; Magical Experiments; Soap Bubbles: And the Forces that Mould Them. I became fascinated with the engravings that illustrated the experiments. I decided to re-create some of the experiments and photograph them. My favorite involved a square soap bubble. The results seemed magical—  not because of any photographic trick, but because of the forces of nature. At that moment, science became for me not just a solution to technical problems, but an exciting subject as well.

I didn’t think of doing children’s books until I teamed up with author Jean Marzollo and designer Carol Devine Carson to work on a series of books called I Spy. Through I Spy, I’ve had wonderful opportunities to visit schools and to see how children respond to my photography. After slide presentations, which involve a lot of audience participation, teachers often comment to me that the most active participant — the hero of the assembly — is a kid who does not otherwise perform well. My comment to the teacher is
always the same: “I was that kid.”

It occurred to me that I could make a science book for children from a perspective I knew best — concrete, direct observations of scientific phenomena through photographs. I felt that water would make an excellent subject, not only for its obvious importance in science, but also for its extraordinary optical properties.

The idea to use a single drop of water as the predominant motif is a typical device of the nineteenth-century books I collect. The idea also has an obvious advantage. Scientific concepts such as states of matter are easier to grasp in the small scale realm of a drop of water, as opposed to the large scale complexities of global water systems.

So with these objectives in place, it was a simple matter of doing the photographs and writing the accompanying text. Or so I thought.

I will spare you most of the excruciating details of the process which — as my wife Linda noted on more than one occasion — seemed like water torture, but I would like to share with you a couple of the interesting problems I encountered.

First was the realization of this fact of nature. Snow does not fall and dew does not form just because some photographer in Connecticut needs to meet a deadline.

Luckily, I didn’t need a foot of snow. A light flurry produces more snowflakes than I would ever need. In fact, a light flurry is best because the snowflakes don’t clump together. I caught the snowflakes on a smooth black board, picked them up with a feather, and transferred them to a microscope slide, which I placed under my camera. This technique was pioneered by Wilson A. Bently, a Vermont farmer and tinkerer who taught himself to photograph snowflakes in 1885.

Like Bently, I worked inside an unheated barn so the snowflakes wouldn’t melt. Still, I had to work quickly, because in the dry air of a shelter, snowflakes lose molecules rapidly. In other words, they evaporate. A sequence of photographs that illustrate this fact are in the book.

Photographing dew presented a bigger problem. I wanted to get a close-up photograph of bright rainbow colors refracting in the dew of a spider web. Of course, even if I could find a web covered in dew, the chance of it being positioned at the correct angle to the sun was remote. But I was determined to get this shot.

As it happened, I found a source for spider webs in the railings of a fence that ran along a path near my studio. But, unfortunately, no dew. So I captured spider webs on sticky embroidery hoops, brought them to my studio, and experimented with ways to make water condense on the webs.

Spraying water on a web was out of the question because that’s not dew, that’s rain, and it looks very different. The trick was to chill the web in a humid environment. I put webs in the freezer with trays of warm water. That failed. I converted an ice chest into a vacuum chamber. That failed, too. I called people. I read books. I couldn’t find a solution. The good news was that each morning the spiders would spin new webs! I came to think of the long fence as a spider-web factory as I went out each morning to capture new ones. I must have looked pretty strange to passersby as I carefully pushed my hoops between the railings, because spider webs without dew are invisible to the casual observer.

After two weeks, I finally achieved success. I positioned two empty fish tanks a few inches apart and filled them with dry ice. I placed my web between the two fish tanks, rigged a pot of hot water underneath, and covered the whole arrangement. Thirty minutes later I uncovered a dew laden web. With the web still attached to the hoop, I was able to clamp it to the top of a tripod. I could then adjust the web to the correct angle of the sun, and see bright rainbow colors. But the colors were so bright, a proper exposure made all the other details of the picture go black. The dew was quickly evaporating, so I decided to play it safe and shoot the photograph without rainbow colors, and that’s the shot we used in the book.

The problems I encountered put me face-to-face with the very science I wanted to explain. The structure and content of the book evolved from the process of making the photographs. In turn, the photographs tell the true story of a drop of water in all its dazzling transformations.

I would like to thank the Scholastic staff, especially my editor, Grace Maccarone, who saw to it that I honored my promise to keep it simple, and Bernette Ford, who saw to it that Grace honored her promise that I would finish my homework. I would also like to thank Carol Devine Carson for her handsome cover design, and David Saylor for his equally handsome book design. My thanks to Jean Feiwel, Brenda Bowen, John Mason, and Jackie Harper. Above all, I would like to thank my wife Linda, who knew all along that there would be a rainbow in the end.

From the January/February 1998 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.
Walter Wick
Walter Wick
Walter Wick is the winner of the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for nonfiction for A Drop of Water, published by Scholastic Press. His speech was delivered in Sturbridge, Massachusetts, on October 6, 1997, at the annual meeting of the New England Library Association.

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