I love reading aloud. I was always the first one in class to raise my hand when a read-along opportunity arose, and I’m sad this isn’t a thing I get to do much as an adult. This may actually be one of the reasons I had a kid. So why would I want to get him books that don’t have any words? Isn’t that some kind of sacrilege for a person who writes for a living?
The first time I opened a wordless picture book, Wonder Bear by Tao Nyeu, I found myself at a loss for what to tell my son. “So, I guess these are kids planting a garden,” I began rather ineloquently. We were quite literally without rhyme or reason. The story, or the one I tell anyway, is about a bear who pops out of a beautiful vine planted by two children. He creates a magical world for them, pulling acrobatic monkeys and lion-shaped bubbles out of his hat, blowing sea creatures out of his mouth, flying with all of the above through the sky until nighttime, when the children go back to their garden-side bed and the animals all get tucked back into the bear’s hat.
It’s a challenge, for sure, especially when your kids are used to Seussian rhythms and important lessons in their books. But by sitting together and making up the story as you go along, you become an active participant in the process, rather than a reciter of words. After reading the same books over and over, night after night, you’ve no doubt memorized everything else on their shelves. (Have you ever seen a woman with grown children recite The Cat in the Hat? It is an amazing thing to behold, but says something about how often she was pressed into reading the darn thing.) A wordless book, however, will keep you on your toes every night. There’s a benefit to this: A study from Utah State University found that parents use more complex language and interaction when “reading” wordless books with their children than they do with wordy equivalents.
There aren’t a ton of examples of the genre out there, but we have a few suggestions to get you brave adventurers started.
A Ball for Daisy, by Chris Raschka, makes the most sense as a wordless book. It’s a sweet, simple story of a dog and her beloved ball, which meets an unfortunate end at the dog park. The tone of the illustrations seem perfectly in line with a dog’s non-verbal experience, it makes you start to wonder: Why would any story told from an animal’s perspective have words at all?
The Lion and the Mouse, by Jerry Pinkney, is a retelling of the Aesop’s Fable about the mouse who stumbles upon a lion and convinces him to let him go, eventually repaying the favor by freeing him from a poacher’s net. In this case, words would distract us from the intensely beautiful illustration. The expressions in the eyes of the lion say everything we need to know, while an occasional squeak or owl hoot remind us that this is anything but a silent world we’re witnessing.
Flotsam, by David Wiesner, would feel cluttered and less mysterious with text. A boy—the kind of boy who brings a microscope to the Jersey Shore—discovers an old-fashioned underwater camera washed up on the beach. The photos it contains reveal a world of mechanical fish, octopus living rooms and aliens who make their home among seahorses. And the last picture is of a girl holding a picture of a boy holding a picture of another kid holding … and so on. The boy uses his microscope to see down to the original: a selfie from the 1900s. These children and underwater creatures have communicated with each other through photographs for generations, so who are we to impose words on them now?
Journey, by Aaron Becker, requires the most interpretation on the reader’s part. A lonely girl escapes her house with a piece of red chalk, which she uses to draw her way into an elaborate castle and an even more elaborate airship, where she rescues a beautiful bird from its cage. Well, that’s the simplest explanation for what’s going on, but we’re sure after a few passes, you and your kids will come up with more layers of motivation and character detail to tell this story. Happy non-reading!
Have you ever read a wordless picture book?