Since becoming a children’s librarian, I’ve found a new appreciation for picture books. The good ones (not the cheesy ones thrown together to cash in on a popular character or make grandparents go “awwww” that show up in the discount bin at the grocery store) are true works of art. Picture books are one kind of story you need to have in paper form, to open up and spread out in front of you, to experience as a whole. The words are chosen carefully, to say a lot with a little, like poetry (even when they don’t rhyme). The pictures don’t just illustrate the story, they enhance it, adding detail and humor that words can’t do alone. Even the page turns are considered to get the pacing right.
November is Picture Book Month, part of an international literacy initiative to raise awareness of and celebrate picture books as an art form that can and should be appreciated by people of all ages.
But in today’s score-driven educational environment, too many people see picture books as something to be outgrown. A year after learning to read, children are being pushed into chapter books, sometimes by teachers, but more often by parents. The more words, the better. Accelerated Reader, a program used by thousands of school districts in the U.S. to track student reading, awards students more points based not on the difficulty of the book, but on the length. Picture books, being almost all just 32 pages long, are worth exactly one-half of a point on Accelerated Reader. Kids trying to rack up points will almost always go for one longer book over several half-point books, even if the total number of words is the same.
And if there are no words at all, what’s the point?
Early in 2010 I was making a poster for the library to advertise the winner of that year’s Caldecott Medal, an award given for the most distinguished illustrations in an American book for children. I looked up the book, The Lion and the Mouse by Jerry Pinkney, on Amazon to find the publishing information. There I noticed, amid a pile of glowing five-star reviews, a tiny selection of one-star ones. I wondered what these reviewers had found to hate about a book that seemed to be universally loved, so I checked.
“‘No text is necessary’ should read ‘there is no text.’ While described as for the 4-8-year-old set, this would be a disappointment for early readers.”
“I was extremely disappointed with this book. I was hoping this would be a good book for me to read to my daughter, but there were no words in this book. It had great pictures, but no words.”
I groaned. Classic reviewing-the-book-you-wanted-it-to-be-instead-of-the-book-it-is. The reviewers were so focused on what it didn’t have that they brushed off what it did. And even they admitted that what it did have was good, they just didn’t know how to handle it.
I think that was the moment I became The Wordless Picture Book Crusader.
Far from pointless, wordless picture books offer the opportunity for readers to understand a story beyond decoding letters, to develop their own narratives, to sharpen observational skills, and to immerse themselves in many styles of visual art.
What can you do with a wordless book?
How do you read a wordless book out loud? I ask questions. “What do you see happening here? What do you notice? What is this character doing? What do you think will happen next?” I rarely ever answer the questions myself. I want the children in my audience to take ownership of the story, to learn to express what they’re seeing in words. By guiding them to really look at the pictures and figure out what is happening, to learn to sort important details from the extra details, to connect the dots from one picture to another, I’m giving them tools to express their own stories. Author Jesse Klausmeier described the experience of reading a wordless book for the first time in her essay for Picture Book Month: “I became the author [of the book she read], and that was a very powerful feeling.” A child can tell the wordless story any way she wants.
Earlier this year a beautiful book called Sidewalk Flowers was released. It has both a writer, JonArno Lawson, and an illustrator, Sydney Smith. But there are no words. What was JonArno Lawson doing here? His words may not appear on the page, but he plotted and crafted each beat of this story and handed it off to Sydney Smith to bring to life. Once the pictures were in place, the words were no longer necessary. But the story remains.
Children who are just learning to read can get the benefit of understanding the story without the distraction of decoding words, from a wordless book. They learn the inner shape of stories, which they can use subconsciously while reading stories with words, increasing comprehension. Telling a story only through pictures forces the reader to infer the narrative by tracking causes and effects between pages or frames. When I “read” Pat Hutchins’ book Changes, Changes to a class of preschoolers, they pick up on the pattern as the two wooden dolls take apart and rebuild their block home as needed, and by the middle of the book they are already predicting what the dolls should build next. The children are actually telling the story themselves.
When families or friends read a wordless book together, each person’s perspective adds to the experience. A grownup has the experience to explain references, but a child may notice something the grownup missed. A Summer Reading challenge we offered last year asked kids to write a story based on a wordless picture book. One boy chose Peter Spier’s Caldecott-winning wordless retelling of Noah’s Ark, a story he, because of his cultural background, did not already know. The story he wrote turned a story I had always known into something totally new. It was about a man with a zoo on a boat who was moving across the ocean. It was a story seen through fresh eyes, this boy’s eyes, that only he could tell. A book like Unspoken: A Story From the Underground Railroad by Henry Cole can spur discussions about difficult topics, simply by asking the readers to view the events and share what they each feel about what they see.
But discussion doesn’t have to be deep. It can be as simple as, “What do you see here?” Donald Crews uses shapes and colors to express simple concepts a toddler can observe and name, sparking conversations that reinforce vocabulary and visual literacy at once. Where’s Walrus? by Stephen Savage asks the only question you need right in the title. All you have to do is find Walrus and admire the ways it hides itself from the zookeeper… or the way Savage has drawn Walrus to blend into the pictures.
A wordless picture book is a lesson in art appreciation and visual literacy. Mark Newgarden’s Bow-Wow books teach cartooning conventions like motion lines by showing them at work in large, simple pictures. Istvan Banyai’s Zoom books teach perspective, and how a change in perspective can completely change what you think you’re looking at. Jacqueline Preiss Weitzman and Robin Preiss Glasser tackle art appreciation directly in their You Can’t Take a Balloon… books, by creating funny scenes that replicate famous works and showing them side by side.
This visual literacy comes in handy when you add a few more words to the book. Nearly wordless books are still told primarily through the pictures, introducing the concept of irony along the way. The words of Rosie’s Walk by Pat Hutchins tell an utterly dull story about a chicken crossing the farmyard. Only the pictures show how often Rosie narrowly escapes a humorously hapless fox on that walk. Peggy Rathmann’s Good Night, Gorilla is simply a series of goodnights from a zookeeper to his animals without the pictures telling the story of the animals’ antics behind him. Even a picture book with a great deal more words, like Sam and Dave Dig a Hole by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen, is nowhere near complete without the story told through Klassen’s pictures, turning a story about a couple of boys searching fruitlessly for “something spectacular” into a truly spectacular surprise for the reader.
Sometimes it’s art for art’s sake. By sharing the work of, say, Shaun Tan (whose books with words even have pictures that still tell most of the story, like last year’s Rules of Summer, in which each strange rule is accompanied by a picture explaining the reasoning behind it… or perhaps raising more questions?) with a child, you’re sharing a unique, challenging, stimulating visual voice. You’re encouraging them to slow down to stare and study and feel awestruck about a picture.
Some of My Favorite Wordless Picture Books and Their Artists
The undisputed (at least, no one has disputed it to me yet) king of the wordless picture book is David Wiesner. I discovered him as a teenager (yes, I was even a kidlit geek as a teenager, when my peers were trying to distance themselves from that category) with his delightfully surreal tale of flying frogs, Tuesday. Since then he’s created many more wordless and nearly wordless award-winning books, including 2013’s Mr. Wuffles! in which the only words are written in an alien language.
But my personal favorite wordless storyteller is Barbara Lehman, who won a Caldecott Honor for The Red Book, about two distant kids who get to know each other through the pages of a magical red book. I’ve always written stories that, I once realized, all boil down to “some kids have a magical adventure and become friends along the way.” Barbara Lehman draws on the same theme. I want to live in the happy magical world she draws.
That is, if I’m not living in the world of my newest favorite, Aaron Becker, whose Journey reminded me of a cross between my favorite word-full picture book, Harold and the Purple Crayon, and Barbara Lehman’s magical friendship stories, expanded into a gorgeously detailed parallel universe. He won a Caldecott Honor for that book, then continued the story with Quest, and is just finishing up the last in the trilogy, Return, which should be out late next year.
That’s not the only Caldecott winner that has branched out into trilogies. Jerry Pinkney followed up The Lion and the Mouse with two more nearly-wordless Aesop retellings, The Tortoise and the Hare and The Grasshopper and the Ants. Flora and the Flamingo is only the first book by Molly Idle that uses lift-the-flaps to follow Flora as she dances with several silly animals: Flora and the Penguin came out last year, and next spring she’ll join some peacocks. Chris Raschka keeps drawing stories for a small watercolor dog named Daisy, following up A Ball for Daisy with Daisy Gets Lost.
The most difficult thing about writing this article is that I want to recommend EVERYONE to you. Here’s a quick list of artists to check out: Lizi Boyd (Flashlight), Alexandra Day (the Carl books), Suzy Lee (Wave), Mark Pett (The Girl and the Bicycle), Bill Thomson (Chalk)… I don’t know when to stop!
Okay, I’ll leave you with this: a Goodreads list of 331 wordless picture books to explore!