The delight of wordless picture books is that they can be enjoyed by anyone regardless of age, reading ability or first language. At the simplest level they can tell a story in a sequence of images which might stimulate youngsters to point at and name familiar things, or encourage toddlers to talk about what they can see or tell the story in their own words. When my own children where young we loved sharing Jan Ormerod’s Sunshine, which describes familiar everyday routines. At the time we also had a jumbo-size wooden jigsaw puzzle based on the book, which made a great introduction to sequencing. Such books also encourage the development and practice of rudimentary book handling skills.
Following on from that, the layout of a book like Raymond Brigg’s The Snowman can help to introduce pre-reading skills – such as left to right and top to bottom orientation. Of course there is so much more to the book – the final image of the melting snowman makes this a very powerful story about relationships and loss. It is amazing how pictures alone can convey variety and depth of emotion. In Quentin Blake’s Clown, for example, the toy experiences a whole gamut of emotions during his adventure, ranging from total rejection to the happiness of belonging. Children who can recognise and identify these different emotions are on their way to developing empathy and emotional literacy.
Whether looking at images or texts, readers use their prior knowledge and experience of stories to help them make sense of what they are viewing or reading. So, for example, the trilogy of wordless picture books by Aaron Becker tells the story of a bored and lonely girl’s visits to a magical kingdom in search of adventure. Stock adventure story characters (a baddie and his henchmen, a usurped king) and perilous life-threatening situations are featured throughout; and help comes in the form of new found friends and in the final book, the girl’s Dad who follows her there. The titles of the books, Quest, Journey and Return, clearly signal what kind of story to expect. No wordless book is entirely without words!
Another important feature of Becker’s books is the use of colour. The colour red, for example, is used throughout to highlight the playful imagination of the child, expressed through the crayon which she uses to draw herself into the adventure and out of danger. Red is also a significant colour in Footpath of Flowers by John Arno Lawson and Sydney Smith. In an otherwise bland landscape, a girl wearing a red hooded coat initially seems to be the only person to recognise the beauty of the world around her (look out for the reader and the dreamer). On her journey she picks some flowers which she shares with others along the way; and the nearer she gets to home, the more colour floods the pages. This book carries a simple message about ‘the importance of small things, small people and small acts of kindness.’
Wordless picture books can be thought-provoking and challenging. Look at Jeannie Baker’s books Window and Belonging, for example, which invite the reader to contemplate man’s effect on the landscape and to consider how we might take better care of the environment. Or the recently published Bee & Me by Alison Jay which celebrates the transformative power of friendship and how change can be brought about by working together. Arrival by Shaun Tan is a sophisticated wordless graphic novel which explores the experiences shared by migrants and refugees around the world. A book for all ages which is bound to provoke discussion and inspire creative responses. There is an in depth explanation of this stunning book on the author’s website:
Wordless picture books make the perfect example of how we ‘picture a story’ for young people!
For more suggestions of wordless books and how to use them, see: https://www.clpe.org.uk/sites/default/files/Wordless%20Picture%20Books.pdf
by Chris Routh