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Walter Wick, 1998.
See permission.
The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

Walter Wick's Optical Tricks written and illus. with photographs by Walter Wick. Cartwheel/Scholastic, 1998. 48p
ISBN 0-590-22227-9  $13.95   Gr. 4 up

It's somewhat of a stretch to consider this a Halloween book, but what else can one do with a book of tricks that are themselves wonderful treats?

We've all seen those books of optical illusions, with pages of two faces that might really be a vase, the pile of blocks that protrudes or recedes, the Escheresque widgets, and other visual brain-teasers that demonstrate just how conceptual vision real ly is. Wick leaves these drawn images in the literary dust by doing the apparently impossible: making these figures real and capturing them in photographs. Nor is this photographic trickery in the sense of gluing together or computer-enhancing photogra phs to make images that weren't present at the actual photography session; these are actually a series of cleverly designed arrangements where angle and concept have been skillfully employed to turn the genuine into the fantastical.

Our cover picture is one of the best examples. Wick includes a clue in the image, which our cropping makes even stealthier, and then provides a double-page explanatory photograph on the following spread that gets described in more detail in the back o f the book. What you're looking at is really a view through glass of the square archway at the top that halfway down becomes a reflection in the glass of three columns that are actually on the opposite side of the glass from the archway . Deft craftsmanship not only made the materials atmospherically classical but also arranged them at precisely the right intervals and shaped them in precisely the right dimensions to blend together seamlessly, aided by the wonderful powers of light.

Some of the book's teasers are simpler: the title page letters are raised in relief if you look at them right side up and are cutouts in the white paper background if you turn them upside down. Some are only simple once you grasp an essential truth ( or perhaps an essential lie?) of the visual image: "Mirror Magic" entices viewers to count the objects in the photograph, which are scattered around a mirror; it's easy, however, to overlook the fact that the objects appearing in the reflection may be hi dden from view on the other side and vice versa, so that one mistakenly thinks that the red checker in the mirror is merely the reflection of the red checker visible outside of it (careful placement of larger objects and cropping of the image has hidden t he checkers' "mates"). Escher fans will be delighted and startled to see that Wick has apparently built an Escher-designed pavilion, which triangularly turns back on itself from a second story it couldn't possibly get to (cunning design of the "second st ory" has led viewers' brains to believe it's on top of the archway in front rather than behind it).

A "More Fun with Illusions" section in back gives a little more explanation about the making of the images; as the "About This Book" afterword suggests, however, even knowing how an image is done may not be sufficient to allow one's brain to see the re ality and not the illusion (interestingly enough, the smaller images in the explanatory section can make some of the perceptual corrections easier). Wick states that the goal of these photographs is to "challenge readers to compare true perceptions (the objects as they really exist) with false perceptions (the illusions) as a way to cultivate visual logic skills and to sharpen powers of observation." This they undoubtedly do, helped by some simple but pointed questions that focus readers' attention on t he signs of visual gamesmanship. Readers may be further encouraged, however, to contemplate the fallibility of visual perception in general, and to consider that "seeing is believing" may well be true without being a good idea. It might be particularly effective to remind readers that Wick didn't have to put in his helpful visual giveaways and that he could probably have made his illusions pert near visually perfect, leaving us completely fooled.

This has some obvious implications for science and for art classes but is such an exercise in sheer wonderment that it would be a shame to restrict it to the merely curricular. Bored with the thin deception of your basic Halloween mask, boys and girls ? Work out these deceptions, and face the fact that your eyes lie to your brain. Boo.

Deborah Stevenson, Associate Editor

Big Picture Image
October's Bulletin cover illustration
by Walter Wick from
Walter Wick's Optical Tricks,
Copyright 1998. Used by
permission of Scholastic Inc.

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This page was last updated on October 1, 1998.