Ever since Beatrix Potter published The Tale of Peter Rabbit in 1902, books for young readers have been full of beautiful, engaging, mysterious, compelling, and captivating art. Then, in 1963, a new age of realism was ushered in with Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, with children's books reflecting the changing attitudes of society about what a picture book should look like and about what might be appropriate to put in a picture book for children. More recently, the technology for reproducing art in children's books has revolutionized book publishing. In the 1950s it was not uncommon to alternate printing color pages with black and white illustrations. In the 1970s, artists often had to provide color-separated versions of their artwork for the printer to use. We are fortunate to be living in a time when the technology, resources, and marketplace are all primed to produce a large volume of children's books of all kinds printed in vivid color for an affordable price.
Picture books have a special niche in the experience of childhood. They can be as loved and comforting as a favorite toy, blanket, or stuffed animal. In fact, it's hard for me to imagine a childhood without picture books. Picture books are my favorite purchase for a baby shower to promote my not-so-hidden agenda of building literacy from birth! Sharing a lap-time book with a young child is such a warm and bonding experience and it sets the stage for developing the book knowledge so essential for future reading. And for young children, "reading" the pictures is an important part of early literacy, particularly visual literacy.
All good readers use all possible sources to understand information, including visuals—which is often a surprise to children who seem to think "reading the pictures" is cheating. We need to help children see how we do that on purpose, how we see a structure based on the visuals themselves and pick up important clues and nuances from them. In fact, readers often learn some things from pictures that are not in the text, giving us an extra layer of the story. Megan Dowd Lambert (2015) recommends a "whole book" approach to reading aloud WITH children by guiding them in "thinking with their eyes" and talking about all aspects of the book with a caring and observant adult, thus nurturing predicting, interpreting, and comprehension skills.
And when it comes to "reading the pictures," there is no better resource than the wordless book, also known as "silent" books or textless books in Great Britain. These are picture books that have no (or very few) words, and the story is conveyed entirely through the illustrations. David Wiesner may well be the master of this form with Caldecott medal and honor-winning examples such as Tuesday (Clarion 1991), Sector 7 (Clarion 1999), and Flotsam (Clarion 2006), among others. The wordless picture book format provides an ideal canvas for talented artists to showcase their skills and talents, but it also requires storytelling skill to map the story exclusively through the art and drama of each page turn. This format challenges children to use their imaginations to create or narrate their own text. This can provide an excellent opportunity for storytelling, writing captions, developing oral fluency, assessing visual literacy, and developing vocabulary skills in children learning English as a new language. Wordless picture books can be perfect for young children still learning to read as they look, guess, and wonder at each illustration; but they also function beautifully for older, fluent readers who can go deeper in examining artistic styles and media, discussing the layers of storytelling the illustrator has employed. Who knew a wordless picture book could work in so many important ways?
And there are so many wonderful wordless picture books to choose from in this growing sub-area of picture books for children. From Raymond Brigg's classic picture book The Snowman, first published in the United States in 1978 and still in print, to this year's Caldecott-medal book Wolf in the Snow by Matthew Cordell. In fact, Caldecott medals and honors have gone to many wordless books, including Journey by Aaron Becker, Flora and the Flamingo by Molly Idle, A Ball for Daisy by Chris Raschka, The Lion & the Mouse by Jerry Pinkney, Flotsam by David Wiesner, and The Red Book by Barbara Lehman, just to name a few.
IBBY Silent Books Project
Most recently, I was intrigued to learn that wordless picture books have been the focus of an international outreach program. The International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY) launched the Silent Books project in 2012 to gather wordless books from around the world to create a library for refugee children arriving from Africa and the Middle East to the Italian island of Lampedusa, a pivotal point for refugees coming by boat across the Mediterranean. Believing such books can be enjoyed by children regardless of language, three collections of nearly three hundred books have been gathered "on the understanding that the inherent narrative power of the images could bridge cultural and linguistic barriers." Mariella Bertelli, librarian, storyteller, and coordinator of the Silent Books exhibit in Canada observed that "The barrier-free nature of these wordless books—outside of language, culture, age, and intellectual ability—adds a totally democratic element to the reading experience." They found that these silent books created common ground between people of differing ages, abilities, and backgrounds. Wordless books also adapt to special needs, ideal for children with hearing impairments who can comprehend the story without accompanying spoken narrative. Bertelli noted, "Wordless books offer a way to find more routes into a new language," but also to dream and imagine. As one young participant noted, "Imagination and dreaming give me strength as I wait to find out whether or not I can stay."
Wordless Book Exemplars
Here are fifty outstanding wordless books for children. Many of these author/illustrators have created several wonderful wordless picture books.
- Anno's Counting Book by Mitsumasa Anno
- The Arrival by Shaun Tan
- A Ball for Daisy by Chris Raschka
- Beaver is Lost by Elisha Cooper
- Bee & Me by Alison Jay
- Boat of Dreams by Rogerio Coelho
- A Boy, A Dog, and A Frog by Mercer Mayer
- The Boys by Jeff Newman
- Chalk by Bill Thomson
- Egg by Kevin Henkes
- Flashlight by Lizi Boyd
- Flora and the Flamingo by Molly Idle
- Flora and the Penguin by Molly Idle
- Flotsam by David Wiesner
- Fossil by Bill Thomson
- Found by Jeff Newman
- Good Night, Gorilla by Peggy Rathmann
- Have You Seen My Duckling? by Nancy Tafuri
- Inside Outside by Lizi Boyd
- Journey by Aaron Becker
- Lines by Suzy Lee
- The Lion and the Mouse by Jerry Pinkney
- Little Fox in the Forest by Stephanie Graegin
- Mine by Jeff Mack
- Mirror by Jeannie Baker
- Mr. Wuffles by David Wiesner
- Museum Trip by Barbara Lehman
- Noah's Ark by Peter Spier
- Pancakes for Breakfast by Tomie de Paola
- Rain by Peter Spier
- Rainstorm by Barbara Lehman
- Red Again by Barbara Lehman
- The Red Book by Barbara Lehman
- Red Sled by Lita Judge
- The Secret Box by Barbara Lehman
- Sector 7 by David Wiesner
- Shadow by Suzy Lee
- Sidewalk Flowers by JonArno Lawson
- The Snowman by Raymond Briggs
- Ten Minutes Till Bedtime by Peggy Rathmann
- Time Flies by Eric Rohmann
- The Tree House by Marije and Ronald Tolman
- The Troublemaker by Lauren Castillo
- Tuesday by David Wiesner
- Wave by Suzy Lee
- Where's Waldo? by Martin Handford
- Window by Jeannie Baker
- Wolf in the Snow by Matthew Cordell
- Zoom by Istvan Banyai
- Zoopa by Gianna Marino
You'll notice an impressive cultural variety among the creators of these outstanding books. Librarian and SLJ blogger Betsy Bird noted that wordless books are one of the biggest sources of imported books—an easy way to build a more global, international collection. Wordless books inspire storytelling that draws upon our own experiences and perspectives. In fact, Mary Renck Jalongo, Denise Dragish, Natalie Conrad, and Ann Zhang noted that "wordless picture books connect visual literacy (learning to interpret images), cultural literacy (learning the characteristics and expectations of social groups), and literacy with print (learning to read and write language)" (2002, p. 168). And Frank Serafini observed that "wordless picture books may be the best platform for introducing many narrative conventions, reading processes, and visual strategies to readers of all ages" (2014). As we look for quality literature to share with young people, we should consider giving wonderful wordless books a closer look.
Bird, Elizabeth. "31 Days/31 Lists: Day 3—2017 Worldless Picture Books" A Fuse #8 Production blog (December 3, 2017). http://blogs.slj.com/afuse8production/2017/12/03/31-days-31-lists-day-three-2017-wordless-picture-books/.
Jango, Mary Renck, Denise Dragich, Natalie K. Conrad, and Ann Zhang. 2002. "Using Wordless Picture Books to Support Emergent Literacy." Early Childhood Education Journal 29, no. 3 (2002): 167-177.
Lambert, Megan Dowd. Reading Picture Books with Children: How to Shake Up Storytime and Get Kids Talking about What They See. Charlesbridge, 2015.
Lindfors, Rose-Marie. "Silent Books" International Board on Books for Young People. http://www.ibby.org/awards-activities/activities/silent-books
Serafini, Frank. "Exploring Wordless Picture Books." The Reading Teacher 68, no. 1 (2014): 24–26.