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The Story Behind "Where's Wally?"

One of everyone’s first and favourite puzzles when they were a child, were the iconic Where’s Wally books. For whatever reason, we could all be occupied for hours trying to find the elusive boy in a red and white striped jumper. But why do we find it so engrossing? And how did Martin Handford, the creator, come up with the idea?

In case there’s anybody out there who doesn’t know what Where’s Wally is (we hope the rock you’ve been living under is lovely), it’s a series of children books showing a detailed drawing of a crowd. The goal is to find the bespectacled Wally, who wears a striped red and white jumper and is hidden in plain sight somewhere on the page. The game is surprisingly difficult and is a great way of keeping children quiet for a couple of hours!

Martin Handford is the illustrator behind the series. He began drawing crowds of people from the age of 5, inspired by the toy soldiers he played with. He always enjoyed drawing when he was younger. Whilst other children would go outside to play he would prefer to stay inside, use his imagination and draw (Candlewick Press). He worked for 3 years in an insurance office to pay for a college art degree from the University of creative arts.  After finishing his degree he worked as an illustrator and specialised in crowd scenes.

Album Cover

Handford’s first major work was the album cover for The Vapors album “Magnets” (seen below). The album’s lyrics explore the assassinations of the Kennedys and Handford took this as inspiration for his design. He created a scene where a crowd of people responding to an assassination. The core group forming the shape of an eye. Hidden in the crowd is the assassin. Can you spot them?

The album cover from the Vapors album Magents. This is the origins of Where's Wally

"That's who he is - an afterthought"

This album cover is clearly the beginnings of the Where’s Wally concept!

5 years later, Handford came up with the distinctive figure of Wally to provide his crowd scenes with context and a focal point. He says “that’s who he [Wally] is – an afterthought” (Candlewick Press). The character was drawn in after the main crowd scenes and wasn’t originally the main reason for the drawings.

“As it turns out, the fans were more interested in the character than in the crowd scenes.” You can say that again! Wally’s peculiar features and characteristics are known globally, with versions of Where’s Wally available in over 37 different  languages. The name of the lead character changes depending on the country. For example in North America, he is known as Waldo and in Germany, he’s called Walter.

Handford describes Wally as a global traveller and likes to imagine that he’s not the smartest person, which is how he ends up in so many hapless scenarios. Each drawing takes the creator roughly 8 weeks to complete and he says that there’s no method behind where he puts Wally. “As I work through the picture, I add Wally when I come to what I feel is a good place to hide him” (Scholastic).

That hasn’t stopped people trying to work out if the placement is truly random! Ben Blatt of Slate magazine conducted his own mathematical research into where Wally is. Under the assumption that true randomness is almost impossible to achieve, he attempted to find the best method of tracking him down. You can check out his findings in this article.

Showing where Wally and the different characters are


But why do we find it so entertaining? Well, the idea isn’t new, the Wally style images are known as Wimmelbilderbuch. It’s a German word (how did you guess!) that literally means hidden object book. These types of books have been very popular with German and Dutch children for hundreds of years. An example of earlier books would be Ali Mitgutsch’s “Mein Wimmelbuch” series. These don’t have the puzzle aspect of Where’s Wally, but depict similar scenes of large crowds, with plenty of things going on in the background. The idea is that you come up with your own story of what’s happening based on what you see. 

1998 paper by Judith Graham confirms this, stating that through the intense searching readers are encouraged to create stories about those in the pictures. This makes the books challenging, rewarding and engrossing. Caroline Horn of the Bookseller says “The books are wonderful because they’re very quirky, very colourful, and you can get hooked”.

Another aspect that makes Wimmel books so engaging is that there’s no barrier to language. This means that young children can try to understand the story. The lack of language barrier is also what’s led Where’s Wally to be popular in so many countries.

Global Appeal

The global popularity of Where’s Wally is truly astonishing. The books have sold more than 73 million copies (The Guardian) worldwide. Wally is also one of the most popular Halloween costumes around. That may partly be that it’s so easy to grab a striped jumper and some glasses. In fact, in 2017, no less than 4,626 people were able to get hold of a Where’s Wally outfit. They gathered in Nagasaki to break the world record for the largest gathering of people dressed as Wally (Guinness World Records).

What started as a means of providing context to Martin Handford’s illustrations has grown into one of the most recognisable characters in the world. Handford’s fun picture puzzles have engrossed children and adults alike for years. If you haven’t tried your hand at Where’s Wally before, or if you’ve been hit with some real nostalgia make sure you check out your nearest charity shop. You can also buy copies on Amazon. We’ll have some in our front room for the next month, so whilst you’re waiting for your escape rooms you can try your hand at finding Wally yourself! We’d also recommend taking a look at some of the other Wimmelbook’s around, particularly Ali Mitgutshch’s and Thé Tjong-Khing’s “The Birthday Cake Mystery”.

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