On April 13, 1980, Andrews McMeel Universal (then Universal Press Syndicate) published its first Wonderword. Today, the popular puzzle is syndicated in about 250 newspapers around the world and reaches roughly 2 million solvers through print and on Wonderword.com.
Wonderword creator David Ouellet said he is honored to be celebrating the game’s 40th anniversary and is blessed to be a part of something that he loves doing and that touches so many people.
“Believe it or not, we have a huge fan base who are very dedicated and loyal,” he said. “We hear from people every day praising us and our work. They share so many heartfelt stories about sharing Wonderword puzzles with their kids, grandparents, parents and friends. They tell us how Wonderword has helped improve their memories or helped them keep occupied during difficult times. The stories are endless, and it motivates us to continue creating. We are where we are today thanks to our fans.”
While AMU commemorates this tremendous milestone with Ouellet and the entire Wonderword staff, it is important to note that Ouellet’s mother, Jo, who was a master of words, actually originated the puzzle several years earlier. Jo was an author, speech writer, copy writer, magazine editor, publisher and translator by day, and a mother of four boys by night.
“One day, a local magazine distributor showed [Jo] a booklet with a bunch of grids containing numbers and he asked her to take a look at it,” said Ouellet. “She quickly got bored with it and said she would develop grids that had only words within it and a central theme. The rest is history!”
That was in 1969. Not long after, Ouellet began helping his mom create the daily puzzles, eventually serving as co-author and then taking the feature over completely when Jo passed away in 1997.
The fundamental difference in Wonderword, compared to traditional word searches, is that the puzzle uses every single letter in the grid. Each puzzle also has a unique, purposeful theme. Wonderword provides a solution at the end of the puzzle as well, which is when the hidden motif is revealed (either automatically in the digital version or the following day in the print version). Additionally, Ouellet and his staff continue to create every single puzzle by hand. Only once a puzzle is completed does it get uploaded digitally and sent to Andrews McMeel for syndication.
Ouellet works directly with AMS Managing Editor Clint Hooker, who has completed the final proofing and formatting for the puzzle for nearly 14 years. One critical thing Hooker checks for each time is to ensure the grid doesn’t contain any inadvertent bad words.
“Working on Wonderword is one of my favorite things about this job,” Hooker said. “From start to finish, it’s a special feature — whether it’s my direct exchanges with David [Ouellet] and Linda [Boragina] at the beginning of the process or getting to hear from players who enjoy the puzzle day after day. Not only that, but I get to play every puzzle myself, and I’ve learned so much from its topics and themes, along with enjoying the obvious mental benefits.”
Nearly two decades ago after receiving overwhelming interest from fans, AMU Director of eCommerce Operations Christina Craver and retired AMS Editor Joyce Mott initiated a new venture to publish Wonderword puzzle books. Today, there are more than 100 collected volume and treasury books. The AMU team is responsible for editing, formatting, printing, selling and mailing the books, while the Wonderword team curates the content and compiles the e-booklets.
“I am so proud of how this idea of offering books direct to consumer, that Joyce and I had, has turned into a successful business — and it is not slowing down any time soon,” said Craver. “Sales have increased by 30% in March 2020 compared to March 2019, and April sales are equally as good.”
For Ouellet and his wife, Sophie, Wonderword is their life, and their staff is their family. They have so many cherished memories over the decades, but one in particular stands out.
“About 10 years ago, [we] were in Lexington, Kentucky, sitting in the hotel bar reading the local newspaper and I noticed that it carried Wonderword, and I told Sophie. Someone overheard us and told us that her friend would be thrilled to meet us, and she invited us to his 70th birthday party. We then went and we introduced ourselves to him as the creators and he proceeded to tear up,” Ouellet said. “Apparently, he had had a stroke and he said that playing Wonderword was great exercise for the brain. He claimed that Wonderword saved his life. It was the most humbling yet happiest day ever!”