Walter Wick Talks with Roger

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Twenty years after winning the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for A Drop of Water, Walter Wick is back with a companion, A Ray of Light. (If this were a trilogy, what would the third book be?) I called Walter at his home in Florida to see if he could shed some light — heh — on how he works.

RS: Why have there been twenty years between A Drop of Water and A Ray of Light?

WW: That's a good question. A Ray of Light and A Drop of Water were actually conceived at the same time, but in the early 2000s the I Spy and Can You See What I See? series kept me very busy. I was also a little afraid of A Ray of Light because the subject is so abstract.

RS: I do think light is conceptually more difficult than water.

WW: It absolutely is. I didn't want to just have pretty pictures of light, I wanted to lay down the fundamentals for readers. It took a year and a half to complete.

RS: It's also self-reflexive, which I imagine is both helpful and complicating, because that's what photography is all about — light.

WW: That's exactly right. I didn't get seriously interested in science until after becoming a photographer. When I was in high school I was intrigued by science, but I didn't buckle down. Then I became a photographer and I was working with light every day, and with materials such as water and glass. I began to read up on what was happening with, for example, double reflections in glass, and that's how I started to become fascinated with science.

With the I Spy books, I began to realize how perceptive kids are in terms of analyzing images, particularly photographic images. They would ask, "How did you get those things to balance?" I delighted in how they were able to engage in the cause-and-effect going on in the pictures.

RS: In those books, you were working with dozens and dozens of little things, trying to get as many items as possible into a picture without looking frantic. A Drop of Water and A Ray of Light do something very different, aesthetically. They're much more pared down.

WW: Right. It's like a breath of fresh air for me. But there's more than meets the eye on those pages, even with the simplicity of the pictures. There's cause and effect on every spread. By the time you get to the third or fourth spread, where you're seeing a light obstacle course, your mind is kind of blown from all that's going on — the small size of light waves, incandescence...

RS: I love that incandescence page, with the three light sources at the top and the cups and saucers underneath, showing how each cup looks completely different depending on the type of light shining on it.

WW: That's my puzzle experience coming in. I know that readers are good at making these visual connections. There's almost a game aspect to it.

RS: And I notice you trust your readers to make the connection between the two rows of images. You don't explicitly say: match this with that.

WW: That comes from experiences at schools. I would ask a question and hands would immediately go up. I'd bring a kid up to the front of the class, and they'd just rip through a problem. Kids just get it.

RS: I think that we book reviewers and librarians sometimes forget how much children get out of pictures, and how much attention they'll give to a picture.

WW: I don't! It's one of the reasons that propelled me to develop ever-more-complex narratives with the search-and-find books. It wasn't satisfying to me to just rearrange things and slap a new puzzle over them. I put so much into those scenes so readers can make connections on their own.

RS: It's like with Tana Hoban's work, her simplest books for the youngest children — you keep finding more and more as you stare at those pictures that seem so simple on the surface.

WW: One of the things about photographic illustration is you get a lot more detail whether you want it or not. For example, I have a photo of three hundred buttons. There are buttons with two holes and buttons with four holes. Buttons made out of glass, fabric, plastic, wood. But when you look at, say, a Disney-style illustration of a button, you just have a circle with two holes — you don't have all that variety. If you do a good job photographing something, you're stopping people dead in their tracks. They're drawn into the textures and details.

That experience was important in staging the pictures in A Ray of Light, because I was intuitively trying to understand how children might be engaging with these photographs. That's why I used so many sequences of three, to help drive the visual narrative. For example, the light waves page — there's a ball that's vibrating on the water, and one that's vibrating a little faster, and one's vibrating a little faster. Right underneath, each one has a color to show the analogy. Long wavelengths are red, medium are green, and short wavelengths are blue. Those sequences slow things down for the viewer so they can process the information more easily, and then that feeling of success encourages them to delve deeper. On the next page, you have the three colors now recombining into white light. I deliberately went very slowly through the fundamental behaviors of light.

RS: How did you decide which topics to explain? I opened the book not even knowing what I was supposed to know about light.

WW: That's what took so long in the beginning; it was a very wobbly start, because I wasn't sure how to tackle which problems and in what sequence. I did a few experiments that I thought had potential. I figured out I needed an experiment about wavelengths before an experiment about refraction; I needed an experiment about refraction before one about the light spectrum; I needed one about the spectrum before the one about iridescence. And then I could go onto pigments. I really wanted to go from the candle to the sun and the stars. That was the narrative arc.

RS: You have a process here — or two or three. You need to figure out what concepts you're going to convey. Then you need to figure out how you can use a photograph or a series of photographs to convey those concepts. Do you know from the start how those photos should go?

WW: I had a lot of ideas because of all my experience — forty years now — working in the studio and playing with light. I started with the experiments and then I figured out how to sequence them. Then I doubled down to get the right experiments to fill in holes in the sequence. There were a lot of things to be distracted by. For example, kids like lasers. But to address laser light would send me down a cul-de-sac that I couldn't return from very easily. Photosynthesis is an important part of light, but that's biology. I'm happy with my approach, taking the simplest, most fundamental behaviors of light, slowing them down, and making the concepts as clear as I possibly can.

RS: When I was looking at the photograph of the three colors of light combining to make white, I thought: this is a lie. He's making this up. Obviously you weren't making it up, but do you worry that in the era of digital photography manipulation people will be less inclined to trust photographic images?

WW: I've grappled with that issue for years. When I did A Drop of Water there was no digital manipulation. I had my very first computer — I was trying to learn how to copy and paste, I didn't have Photoshop — but I still felt compelled to put in a disclaimer that those photos were, by and large, true to what was going on in science. I say something similar in A Ray of Light, too, being aware of the suspicion of the images being digitally manipulated. And now with YouTube and Wikipedia — you can go online and look everything up. At first I thought, "Why do you need a book?" But then I got my answer while I was doing the research. If you Google, "What is refraction?" you get thousands of choices — you're not getting a narrative arc. I realized the book was almost more necessary now than ever, because between those two covers I can very calmly lay out my argument for why you should be interested in the subject.

RS: And building from one thing to the next, which the internet doesn't do — it's flat.

WW: You watch a great video of a professor talking about wavelengths or photons or what have you, but there's a lot of hems and haws, a lot of distraction, a few little jokes. Sometimes it goes too fast and it's too complicated, and sometimes it goes too slow and is too basic. You never know what you're going to get. Meanwhile, you've got all these other suggestions on the side of the screen. You can watch "Pink Floyd Live at Pompeii" or something — they've got lasers in the show, it has something to do with light.

RS: This book reminded me that I needed to absorb the information on one page before I went to the next. That's a very valuable lesson to be reminded of.

WW: And it's okay if not every nuance of what's happening is fully grasped. If you get to the end and you're a little bit out of breath and your brain is going a mile a minute, I think that's a good thing.

RS: And the book is still there. You can always go back.

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Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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