Puzzles are a welcome distraction for families during the coronavirus pandemic

Puzzles mean the world to Patricia Menchaca. Make it the wonderful world of Disney.

Inside Menchaca’s South Side home, giant framed puzzles of Mickey Mouse, “Alice in Wonderland,” and other Disney luminaries glow in her living room, while several smaller framed puzzles glow with landscapes of Disney animated films reimagined in paintings by Thomas Kinkade.

Now she finds the pieces of her life scrambled like so many others because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Shelter-in-place restrictions prevent Menchaca, who is a makeup artist, from bringing more characters and smiles to children’s cheeks. Meanwhile, her husband, Michael, no longer has a teaching job, while their two young sons, Micheal Jr., 5, and Matteo, 3, are out of school.

But by the time Menchaca and Matteo sit down at the dining room table to work on a panoramic puzzle of Walt Disney World with its many animated icons enjoying the rides, she’s able to see the big picture.

“It’s something we can control,” she said. “It’s something we can do at a time when we really can’t go anywhere or do anything.”

Add puzzles to the list of comforts people turn to in the age of COVID-19.

Like books and television, these fragmented works of art have become a welcome diversion from the outside world. And like face masks and toilet paper, puzzles are flying off real and virtual shelves.

According to market research firm The NPD Group, games and puzzles have been the fastest growing category in recent toy sales, jumping 228%.

Puzzles for adults, those with 1,000 pieces or more, are especially popular. Those sales were up 357% in the week ending March 28, according to the most recent NPD data.

“I think a lot of that is due to school closures, people staying home to work, and social isolation,” said NDP toy industry adviser Juli Lennett.

Examples abound on social media, with a fair share from the city of Alamo.

On Twitter, “Dez” (@dgatica23) posted a photo of a 1,000 piece Dolphin puzzle she completedwhile “Doug ~ be socially distant” (@DouginTX) shared a photo of a Thomas Kinkade puzzle representing the bucolic forest of “Bambi”, that Menchaca also has at home.

Meanwhile, on Facebook, Alex Herrera posted a video of his wife and grandchildren working on small puzzles, while Sylvia Puente Andrade posted photos of a “Wizard of Oz” movie puzzle she and her granddaughter Ella worked. It’s “helping with our anxiety,” Andrade wrote.

Janet Spivey posted a photo on Facebook of a puzzle her family put together with Avengers comic book covers from all decades, minus a top corner piece. Next: a 1,000-piece ‘Doctor Who’ puzzle featuring postcards from the sci-fi series’ journeys through time and space, which she is working on with her 17-year-old son, Ben

“For me, it’s almost therapeutic,” Spivey said from his Far Northwest Side home. “It kind of makes me think of a different place.”

Spivey isn’t alone these days in enjoying such escapism.

“People have always talked about the beauty of puzzles and creating order out of chaos,” said AJ Jacobs, a best-selling writer in New York who is working on a book about puzzles and other games. “And in these times of uncertainty, the feeling of having this puzzle with a real solution is such a comfort.”

Jacobs said the puzzles capture all kinds of senses, from the feel of the little nooks and knots of the pieces to the fun of fitting them together. A husband and father of two teenagers himself, he also considers families assembling puzzles a common hobby.

Jacobs put that time to the test last year when he and his family represented the United States at the World Jigsaw Championship in Spain.

Admittedly, the Jacobs clan finished second to last, beating only Portugal. But they still learned a thing or two about more efficient puzzle solving from the winning Russian team.

The secret was a division of labor. Jacobs said one member of the Russian team sorted the puzzle pieces by color, while another put together monochrome sections such as the sky. Then, of course, another assembled the edges of the puzzle.

Menchaca uses a similar plan of attack, having his youngest son, Matteo, organize the puzzle pieces by color. And Janet Spivey welcomes all the help from her husband, Brian, and their son Ben, because she refuses to work on puzzles under 1,000 pieces.

Puzzles don’t just promote teamwork. The earliest date back to around 1760, when London engraver and cartographer John Spilsbury mounted his maps on hardwood and cut out country borders to teach geography to British children.

Puzzles remained educational tools until the early 1800s, then expanded outside of the classroom in the late 1880s with the advent of cardboard puzzles for children.

In the 1920s and 1930s, manufacturers improved their puzzle game in terms of design and difficulty, creating more artistic images and even advertising promotions. When the Great Depression crippled the nation, puzzles became an affordable form of recyclable entertainment and a welcome distraction from the woes of the outside world.

Sound familiar?

“So it seems to be an echo of that,” Jacobs said. “It seems like the perfect time, the second golden age of puzzles.”

Not that it took a pandemic to make puzzles popular again.

Jacobs said that before the coronavirus crisis, some of his millennial friends mentioned being piecing together puzzles, partly out of nostalgia for old media, the resurgence of vinyl records, but also as a sensory break of all these screens.

Indeed, The NPD Group found that sales of adult puzzles were growing before the coronavirus pandemic, up 18% in the first nine weeks of the year, Lennett said.

With many mass-produced puzzles harder to find, some fans are looking to more DIY options.

Earlier this month, David Garcia of No. 9 Floral Chocolates & Gifts in San Antonio began taking orders for a 500-piece puzzle he designed of a flower arrangement in a skull vase. The $35 puzzle is selling on her store’s website, no-9-floral-chocolates-gifts.myshopify.com.

Less than two weeks later, the store owner was down to just 10 of 50 floral skull puzzles. Garcia plans to make more and added another puzzle design with colorful Mexican sweetbreads.

The recent surge in interest in puzzles doesn’t just give families something to look forward to in the days ahead. Often the puzzles also remind them of days gone by.

Spivey grew up working on puzzles with his family while on vacation or somewhere on vacation. Menchaca also fell in love with puzzles when she was young. His mother worked on Disney puzzles even when she was pregnant with Menchaca, a tradition Menchaca continued while she was expecting her own boys.

The NPD Group’s Lennett expects puzzle sales to plummet once coronavirus restrictions are lifted across the country.

In the meantime, many families across the country and across San Antonio are happy to create their own dream worlds, piece by piece.

René Guzman is a journalist specializing in the San Antonio area and Bexar County. He writes about pop culture and what makes San Antonio so unique puro San Antonio. To learn more about René, become a subscriber. rguzman@express-news.net | Twitter: @reneguz