When Word Gets Out: Wordless Picture Books

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.

  1. Anno's Counting Book by Mitsumasa Anno
  2. The Arrival by Shaun Tan
  3. A Ball for Daisy by Chris Raschka
  4. Beaver is Lost by Elisha Cooper
  5. Bee & Me by Alison Jay
  6. Boat of Dreams by Rogerio Coelho
  7. A Boy, A Dog, and A Frog by Mercer Mayer
  8. The Boys by Jeff Newman
  9. Chalk by Bill Thomson
  10. Egg by Kevin Henkes
  11. Flashlight by Lizi Boyd
  12. Flora and the Flamingo by Molly Idle
  13. Flora and the Penguin by Molly Idle
  14. Flotsam by David Wiesner
  15. Fossil by Bill Thomson
  16. Found by Jeff Newman
  17. Good Night, Gorilla by Peggy Rathmann
  18. Have You Seen My Duckling? by Nancy Tafuri
  19. Inside Outside by Lizi Boyd
  20. Journey by Aaron Becker
  21. Lines by Suzy Lee
  22. The Lion and the Mouse by Jerry Pinkney
  23. Little Fox in the Forest by Stephanie Graegin
  24. Mine by Jeff Mack
  25. Mirror by Jeannie Baker
  26. Mr. Wuffles by David Wiesner
  27. Museum Trip by Barbara Lehman
  28. Noah's Ark by Peter Spier
  29. Pancakes for Breakfast by Tomie de Paola
  30. Rain by Peter Spier
  31. Rainstorm by Barbara Lehman
  32. Red Again by Barbara Lehman
  33. The Red Book by Barbara Lehman
  34. Red Sled by Lita Judge
  35. The Secret Box by Barbara Lehman
  36. Sector 7 by David Wiesner
  37. Shadow by Suzy Lee
  38. Sidewalk Flowers by JonArno Lawson
  39. The Snowman by Raymond Briggs
  40. Ten Minutes Till Bedtime by Peggy Rathmann
  41. Time Flies by Eric Rohmann
  42. The Tree House by Marije and Ronald Tolman
  43. The Troublemaker by Lauren Castillo
  44. Tuesday by David Wiesner
  45. Wave by Suzy Lee
  46. Where's Waldo? by Martin Handford
  47. Window by Jeannie Baker
  48. Wolf in the Snow by Matthew Cordell
  49. Zoom by Istvan Banyai
  50. 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.

Works Cited

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.

About the Editor

Sylvia Vardell is Professor in the School of Library and Information Studies at Texas Woman's University and teaches courses in literature for children and young adults. She has authored or co-authored more than 100 published articles, more than 25 book chapters and given more than 150 presentations at national and international conferences. She is the author of Children's Literature in Action: A Librarian's Guide, Poetry Aloud Here!, The Poetry Teacher's Book of Lists, Poetry People, co-edits The Poetry Friday Anthology series (with Janet Wong) and maintains the PoetryForChildren blog and poetry column for ALA's Book Links magazine.

MLA Citation Vardell, Sylvia. "When Word Gets Out: Wordless Picture Books." School Library Connection, November 2018, schoollibraryconnection.com/Home/Display/2233183.

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Entry ID: 2180396

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