Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Looking Back: Where's Waldo?

By Elisa Gall

Martin Handford’s Where’s Waldo? (published as Where’s Wally? outside of the United States) turns 30 this year. To celebrate, Where’s Waldo? Destination Everywhere! will be released later this month. I first learned about the anniversary from Dr. Debbie Reese on Twitter:
Screen Shot 2017-09-02 at 2.09.55 PM.png
Debbie Reese's tweet reads, "Hey, @Candlewick, did this stereotype get cut from the new 30th anniversary edition of Where's Waldo? I HOPE SO."
The image featured in Reese’s tweet shows the backpack hauling, striped clothes & glasses-wearing Waldo character walking past a crowd, including two people lounging outside a tipi. They appear as stereotypes of First Nations/Native people, wearing generic headbands with feathers. One is smoking a pipe, and next to the pair is a brown dog with a headband and feathers atop its head. I did a double take after seeing the tweet, because I was a huge Waldo fan as a kid, and I did not remember that image from the series. As a child I owned a Waldo t-shirt, and as a school librarian I’ve probably checked out Waldo books to kids hundreds of times. I’ve even dressed up like Waldo for Halloween. But truth be told, it had been awhile since I’d spent time with the books. So today I sat down and did just that.

My first reaction at opening Where’s Waldo? was feeling overwhelmed and overstimulated. Overstimulation might be an understatement. I didn’t know where to look (that’s the point of a search and find book, I suppose). A reader could spend a good hour on one spread alone, looking and thinking and wondering about each drawing, character, setting, and situation. There is A LOT going on.
A chaotic sea illustration featuring the canoe scene described in the main text of the post.
There are a lot of sophomoric, goofy moments happening, as well as a bunch of cringe-worthy ones, including the image Reese shared in her tweet and this image showing another group of “Natives” paddling a canoe amidst chaos in the sea. Instead of lounging, this time they are in battle position: one has mouth agape and leg up, as if chanting, while his canoe-mates are either paddling or holding weapons at the ready. Reading this post Reese wrote several years ago helped me to clarify why the feathers and stereotypes represented here are so problematic.

The introduction page for "Trouble in Old Japan."
I noticed that people of color and First Nations/Native people are present in Handford’s books, but often when real settings and cultures are present they are also used as props or gimmicks, such as in Where’s Waldo Now? when Waldo travels the globe. The images from “Trouble in Old Japan,” in which Waldo comes upon sumo wrestlers and samurai, show how this setting-specific representation is also troubling.
An illustration of sumo wrestlers and samurai featuring Japanese stereotypes

Many of Handford’s fantasy worlds in Where’s Waldo? The Fantastic Journey lack racial diversity and feature what appear to be huge crowds of White human characters. This subtly (and wrongly) communicates to First Nations/Native children, children of color, and White children that White is the default for representation - and in these make-believe stories, First Nations/Native children and children of color either do not exist or are not welcome.
A scene with flying dragons, a castle, and a White crowd of characters. 
A scene with many White characters wearing blue, green, or red clothing.

I’m sure that some will say that you can’t criticize the whole book or series because of a few images, or that these images are somehow less likely to be noticed on account of the clutter and topsy-turvy storytelling happening around them. I do believe that there is so much crammed into each spread that a reader might notice something different every time they read the book; that makes me aware that with more time examining these books, I’ll likely come to see additional elements of racism and other systems of oppression reflected in them. Even if we aren’t consciously taking all of the messages in at each read, we are seeing them and they are affecting us. I didn’t even REMEMBER these scenes from my childhood, but that doesn’t mean that they didn’t have a role to play in my socialization. It’s not that I didn’t see them, but rather that I didn’t notice them or understand them.

The publisher’s site for the 30th anniversary book promises “12 classic scenes as you’ve never seen them before,” and that has me wondering what willand hoping what will notbe reflected in those scenes. I’m not ashamed that kid-me loved these books, and in many ways I think Handford’s complex visual storytelling is part of why I’m so into visual narrative today. I am frustrated, however, that I didn’t have a teacher or role model to help me notice and question these images. I worry about how many teachers and caregivers today are looking at Waldo books and celebrations with children without reflections or critical conversations. A great anti-bias lesson in a classroom might be to look through these books and try to spot and discuss the -isms and -ias. A different kind of search and find book, if you will.


Debbie Reese said...

Hope you get a copy to review, Elisa! There's a lot more going on in those books than I realized.


Unknown said...

Who cares it's just a children's book you fools