Where’s Waldo

Wimmelbooks and Taking Noticing

Once upon a time, fresh out of college and a little wide-eyed, I had a boyfriend who had grown up on Richard Scarry. That boyfriend’s world overflowed with Anglophiles and intellectuals and Scarry —in a twist of misdirected intimidation — acquired a certain aura of kid-lit-mystique for me. (I assumed that these unknown classics were English, too, which of course made them that much more fabulous.)

In fact, Scarry (1919-1994) was a prolific American author-illustrator, and his books are nothing if not accessible. His full and detailed illustrations in the Busytown books and others offer up a simple sort of engagement that young children adore: innumerable details and visual story fragments that let kids look and search and spy and name — and where they can’t name, ask. Kids spend their days doing the same thing out in the real world, noticing and engaging in visual play with whatever grabs their attention. But books like Scarry’s add the dimension of a beloved adult’s lap.

ScarryBestFirstBookEver Scarry_WhatDoPeopleDoAllDay Scarry_CarsAndTrucksAndThingsThatGo

Scarry_BustBusyWorld Scarry_BusiestPeopleEver Scarry_ABSWordBook

Scarry’s picture books are essentially beginner-wimmelbilderbuch or wimmelbooks. German author-illustrator Hans Jurgen Press  (1926-2002) coined the term in the mid 20th century and it translates loosely as “teeming picture book”; the format clearly owes a debt to the 15th and 16th century paintings of Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Brueghel the Elder. But Press’s books incorporated the element of the hunt, making the visual meander more goal-oriented: instead of the eye simply wandering as it would in staring out the side of a stroller or a car window (or at a Bosch painting), it has something to find in these books’ considered and dense illustrations.

Bosch’s GARDEN OF EARTHLY DELIGHTS (wikicommons)

Martin Hanford’s Where’s Waldo books, Jean Marzollo and Walter Wick’s I Spy series and Graeme Base’s AnimaliaThe Water Hole and others all fit under the heading of ‘wimmelbook’ too.

 Animalia Wheres Waldo ISpy

Mitsumasa Anno, in the wimmelbooks he created, gave new twists to the form as he moved past pure density of imagery. In Anno’s Animals, he masterfully turned the game on its head, hiding prey in landscapes that he drew to seem anything but full. And, in Anno’s Counting Book, his detail-rich illustrations play with number and one to one correspondence, introducing a new, mathematical dimension to the hunt.


 Writing recently about JonArno Lawson and Syndey Smith’s new book Sidewalk Flowers (Groundwood Books), Maria Popova describes the book in terms that connect to the poignancy wimmelbooks have for this particular historical moment too. A wordless tale, Sidewalk Flowers follows a girl as she walks through the city holding her father’s hand; throughout, her attention to details on the street contrasts with her father’s chronic digital distraction. Popova dubs the book “a magnificent modern manifesto for the everyday art of noticing in a culture that rips the soul asunder with the dual demands of distraction and efficiency.


Kids excel at noticing, being observant and tuning in. Adults: not so much. And these habits of mind are precisely what wimmelbooks demand.


A wimmelbook with more contemporary styling, Lotta Nieminem and Jenny Broom’s  Walk This World was published in 2013 by Big Picture Press, a new-ish partnership between Templar Co. Ltd. (UK & Australia) and Candlewick (US & Canada). Big Picture’s introductory video features Bosch and frames Big Picture’s undertaking as being about creating “illustrated books for people who like to look at pictures and discover something new each time.” It should be fun to see what else Big Picture Press publishes and what new twists and turns the form takes as other authors and illustrators experiment. Maybe they will turn out a few more ‘modern manifestos’ or, at the very least, create some stellar new encouragements for kids (and their adults) to focus for more than a few minutes on images that aren’t moving and don’t require electricity.



Nothing says “READ ME” like a hot pink “BANNED” label slapped onto the cover of a book.


This particular bookshelf sits in the children’s department of my local library, the Free Library of Philadelphia Parkway Central Branch, and is typically home to a changing collection books that fall into a particular category or theme (think “Summer!”, “New Releases” or “Chanukkah”). I have only ever seen one person at a time standing in front of it, but when I passed by this Tuesday there were a full four, browsing books and chatting with a nearby librarian — not counting the toddler who was busy de-shelfing the lower half of the display, book by censored book.

We are nearing the end of BANNED BOOKS WEEK 2014 (September 21-27, 2014). The American Library Association, one organizer, offers gobs of information and background on the contemporary state of censorship in the U.S., and The Huffington Post’s BOOKS section is full of discussion about “the value of unhindered expression”, including this handy little infographic post on the what’s, where’s, why’s and who’s of current banned and challenged books.

For this collection, the FLP Children’s Department librarians culled through their collection for any titles that appeared on the frequently challenged or banned list.

Of the ones they pulled out, And Tango Makes Three is perhaps the most obvious: we can’t have it seems like there could possibly be anything good or right or even ok about two males — of any species — rasing young. Right?

Ban-Newberry Ban-tango

My recollection of the details of Julie of the Wolves was foggy, but as it turns out, in the key interaction that compels young Miyax/Julie to run away (to the wolves), her husband, Daniel, pushes her to the floor and tears her dress. That scene has been construed as “rape”, and therefore age-inappropriate. Author Jean Craighead George — delighted to be on a list with the likes of Mark Twain — refuted that interpretation.

No matter that that simple act of violence provides a great entry point for a conversation with kids about the very real issue of violence against girls and women.

The objections to A Wrinkle in Time seem to have been varied and multiple, but almost all are religion-based. At the same time that the book is criticized for being too Christian by some, others take issue with the nature of its Christianity, with claims of sorcery, black magic, new-age-ism and the belittling of J.C. (Madeline L’Engle was the writer-in-residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan for a stretch, so it is no surprise that religious themes emerge in her work.)

Most surprising of all: Where’s Waldo?. Seriously? Waldo?!


Turns out that among the umpteen bjillion tiny figures that Martin Handford used to hide Waldo, is a woman sunbathing topless, on a beach. Facedown, originally, she has been surprised into exposing herself by an ice-cream wielding young boy. No need to waste your time searching for the titillating little tidbit; here it is:

Sadly, after controversy bubbled up over this image in the original, 1987 edition of Where’s Waldo, illustrations were modified to eliminate the bather (I just checked my kids’ copy which, amazingly, is from 1987, and she is still there in all her glory). Not to worry though: the would-be censors overlooked various other savory tidbits in Handford’s various Waldo books, from human sacrifice to tranvestitism to torture-as-entertainment, all highlighted in this Toplessrobot blog post from a few years back. Unchallenged, it would seem that none of these offenses is quite as dangerous or subversive as a breast, though. Go figure.