In 2013, I answered the age-old question: Where is Waldo?
Of course, millions of children since 1987 had been able to answer that question on their own. They didn’t need the help of an adult. Nonetheless, in an article for Slate I mapped out all of Waldo’s locations on the page in his seven primary books.
I was interested in a problem deeper than where Waldo was: how the books’ creator, Martin Handford, decided to hide Waldo. Did he hide him in the corners so he would be hard to find? Or are the corners too obvious? What about the exact middle of the page?
I argued, that on the whole, Handford was sneaky. He avoided both the center and the edges. This makes scanning for Waldo more difficult.
But there is a more compelling data point that proves just how eager Handford was to hide Waldo—an undeniable piece of evidence that proves that Handford wanted people to struggle more and more. It was Handford’s surefire way to foil everyone’s Waldo’s-searching plans.
Handford has published seven Waldo books. Below are two images scaled to be the same size. The image on the left is from the third spread of the first book, 1987’s Where’s Waldo? The image on the right is the second spread of the last Waldo book, 2009’s Where’s Waldo? The Incredible Paper Chase.
The space Waldo takes up on the left page (including cane, backpack, hat, pants, etc.) is about 20 times as much as he does on the right. Not only is Waldo’s beautiful face much smaller in the last book, but his stunning wardrobe is all but hidden by the surroundings. (If you are still having trouble finding Waldo in the second image, start at the line under 40 on the tape measure and scan right. If you are still having trouble finding Waldo on the first page I suggest an optometrist, as well as starting at the line under 44 on the tape measure and scanning right.)
I went through all seven books and found Waldo. Luckily, this wasn’t hard to do with the 2013 guide. I then took a picture of Waldo with a tape measure for scale. In Photoshop I could compare the number of pixels that Waldo took up to a square centimeter. Was this method perfect? No. I imagine my calculations would change a few percentage points in either direction if I were to measure again, but my argument is not reliant on such a small change. Handford halved the size of Waldo and then halved him again. In the first book Waldo averaged close to a square centimeter. By the seventh book, Waldo was only 0.2 square centimeters.
For each of the first four books Waldo declined sharply and consistently. The smallest Waldo in the first book would be considered huge in any of the last four books. The average Waldo towards the end would be unheard of in the earliest books.
The reason Handford shrunk Waldo seems obvious. As Waldo’s popularity grew, so did the desire for harder and harder searches. If everything is scaled smaller there is more room on the page for the hundreds of visual jokes that Handford sneaks in, everything from a Buffalo stamp-ede (a bunch of postage stamps with buffalos on them racing together) to a literal queen bee sitting on a throne with crown.
In my book Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve, I describe a phenomenon I call book inflation. First-time novelists who land with an unexpected smash hit almost always come back with a bigger, but oftentimes not better, book. The Joy Luck Club was Amy Tan’s first book and the shortest by a wide margin. Each of the Twilight and Fifty Shades books got subsequently longer. Everyone knows how big the Harry Potter books grew. I argue that increasing word count, which sometimes runs counter to quality, is inevitable when the public has an insatiable demand for more content and there is little incentive to edit a tighter story.
Handford’s spreads contain no words to read, but the same principle of bigger—and maybe better—applies. The first page in the first Waldo book contains one Waldo and approximately 225 non-Waldo people and animals. The first page in the last book contains one Waldo and approximately 850 non-Waldo people. There’s a lot more going on.
If you pick up a book in the Waldo series, don’t forget about how tiny he gets in the late books. By the end, he’s 80 percent smaller, which makes it that much harder. It’s like finding one-fifth of a needle in a haystack.