By Isis Nicole
Jan Buckner Walker, creator of the number one family crossword Kids Across Parents Down, took some time out with GlossMagazineOnline (GMO) to share a bit of her story as a puzzle maker recognized across the country. She is a gifted businesswoman full of humor and grace from Silver Spring, MD, who finds joy in making puzzles to bring smiles to others. Walker was acknowledged by President Obama after being asked to create custom Kids Across Parents Down puzzles for gift bags in regards to the Children’s Inaugural Ball and the State of Illinois Ball, and continues to create puzzles which run weekly in newspapers throughout the United States.
What inspired you to create Kids Across Parents Down?
I have always been a bit of a “word nerd” dating back to the days when I was a child. I majored in journalism while at Howard and word games were always fun for me. After going to law school and working in corporate, I began tutoring at Cabrini Green here in Chicago. In working with my assigned student –– a bright, but easily distracted and largely disinterested second grader –– I found myself always trying to find a way to make learning a bit more exciting. I’d make up word games and other activities to get him engaged.
Years later, out of the blue, Kids Across Parents Down came to me as a brainstorm –– a crossword that families could do together with “across” clues for kids and “down” clues for parents that would run in the Sunday comics section of the newspaper. It came to my mind as a complete package and was so vivid that I thought I had seen it somewhere before. It is and was, in the truest sense, a gift from God.
How much time does it take to put into creating your puzzles?
Making puzzles takes different lengths of time depending on the theme, the target age level and the size of the grid. Usually, it’s a couple of hours. If you think about a crossword grid, you can see that it’s really the result of weaving together words. In my work under the KAPD brand, all of the words and clues must share a common theme. So after constructing the grid, I add clues that are fun or funny to create an experience that lets both the kids and parents learn a little, laugh a bit, and win together.
Have you received any criticism or positive feedback about any of your creations?
Our puzzles run weekly in newspapers across the country from Los Angeles to Alaska and many kids know us as a regularly featured activity in kids menus in various restaurants or from our popular book series. So, I receive numerous emails from kids and parents all the time. They are overwhelmingly positive –– kids will write in to say that they love the crosswords or that the puzzles are ‘making my mom very smart’ and parents report that the crosswords have become part of a family ritual. Occasionally, a solver will complain about a particular puzzle. I’ve had parents object to reference a particular celebrity whose conduct they find objectionable, such as Jamie Lynn Spears after her pregnancy was revealed or Tiger Woods following his well publicized scandal. As the puzzle is nationally syndicated, I receive feedback from a staff of editors, which minimizes the likelihood of errors slipping through.
What is your biggest challenge as a puzzle maker?
The biggest challenge is ensuring that every puzzle satisfies our fun guarantee. Each one has to contain a fresh, lively theme and clues that deliver an experience a family can count on as fun every time.
Is there ever a moment you feel limited in your creation? If yes, what do you do to get pass that bump? If no, how do you always posse that creative energy?
[Laughs] Yes, there is such a thing as puzzler’s block. It’s writer’s block’s lesser known and even eviler cousin. Making puzzles is part art and science. The grid is the science and the clues are the artistic part.
There are days when the grid comes easily but the clues don’t flow or vice versa. That’s why I try to stay ahead of deadline and give every puzzle a cooling period until it has the right look, tone and personality.
What does it take for you to succeed and survive in your profession?
It’s a blessing to be able to do what you love and be paid for it. In the puzzling world, there are only a handful of people who enjoy this opportunity, and I am grateful for it. To make it as a cruciverbalist, which is a fancy word for crossword constructor, it’s important to keep your creative juices flowing. Pay attention to the world around you for relatable experiences and remember what it is that makes your puzzles unique. On the business side, it’s important to always be on the lookout for new opportunities where a puzzle should exist but doesn’t, then you have to engage the decision maker to help him or her see your vision which is not always easy.
Outside of Kids Across Parents Down, is there anything else you work on?
Yes. In addition to the family crosswords, I create standard puzzles for organizations ranging from the Boston Celtics to Essence Magazine. With regard to the latter, it’s especially exciting to see black people embracing crosswords as never before. I’m happy to be able to create inclusive puzzles that uniquely focus on African-American trivia, pop culture, literature, and events. Having spawned a flurry of interest in puzzles in our community, I am now in talks with several outlets to deliver interactive online puzzles with black themes.
What is your most prized accomplishment?
The most thrilling moment since we began was being asked to create custom Kids Across Parents Down puzzles for inclusion the gift bags for the Children’s Inaugural Ball and the State of Illinois Ball when President Obama took office. We heard that the Obamas were aware of the puzzle because of the fact that it had run for years in the Chicago Tribune and as I was and am a big fan of the president, it was an exciting honor to be a part of that historic event.
What is your least favorite puzzle trend?
Personally, I don’t like puzzles that contain information so obscure and arcane that most people don’t know it and don’t care. I like to say that my puzzles are mind-tickling, not brain-busting. That’s not to say that there’s not a place for all types of puzzles because there is. And there’s nothing wrong with a rigorous challenge. But for my part, life is hard enough without a puzzle to put lines in your forehead. I’d rather create smile lines.
Any advice to aspiring artists?
My advice is not new, but it’s true enough to repeat: Do what you love. To put it better, work at what you love. It’s like singing –– many people are gifted with a beautiful voice, but if you want to do it professionally, it takes more than singing in the shower. In every creative endeavor you have to find your unique voice and if it is to be a business, figure out whether there’s an audience out there for the sound you’re making. Then, continually work to get better and better. And never take no for an answer.