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LeeAnne Neilson

Childrens Literature
November 19, 2014
Wordless Picture Books
The authors of our textbook pose some interesting ideas concerning wordless picture
books and whether or not they should qualify as picture books. They state that images are the
central requirement for a picturebook narrative to function, but also that many definitions of
the picturebook stress the interrelation of both text and image [and thus] wordless picturebooks
might not qualify as picturebooks under this stricter definition (Reading Childrens Literature:
a critical introduction, Carrie Hintz and Eric L. Tribunella, Bedford, New York, p.167).
However, I believe that wordless picture books should be classified as picture books and that
they hold great literary value. They are not a quick, easy read and are crossover works that both
children and adults can enjoy.
When I began my exploration on this genre, I believed that there would be a small
number of books that fit into this category, but I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the last
four decades have brought a flood of wordless books for the reader to enjoy and that there are
over a 1000 published works in this genre (Wordless Books: Promise and Possibilities, A Genre
Come of Age, p.59). One of the earliest English titled wordless books for children may have
been by Thomas Bewick, called A New Years Gift: For Little Masters and Misses, first
published in 1777, [and] the first U. S. wordless book, specifically for children, appeared nearly
60 years ago and was entitled What Whiskers Did . . . by Ruth Carroll (Wordless Books:
Promise and Possibilities, A Genre Come of Age, pp.58-59).
Many books [of this genre] contain no words except their titles. The mere existence of
such books disturbs some adults, who fear that these books will encourage illiteracythat, like

television, they encourage a visual orientation at the expense of a verbal one (Words about
Pictures, p.185). However, as I read a great many of these books I found myself supplying the
words to the story and asking questions about the characters actions.
My brother-in-law who has a masters degree in library science became a test subject for
my exploration. When I asked his opinion concerning the value of wordless picture books, he
thought that they were fluff. I then gave him two wordless picture books to read. The first one
supported his opinion; the second one began to change his view concerning this genres potential
for stimulating the mind and engaging creativity in the reader. I also helped sway him as I
presented to him some of my research findings. He now has been enlightened and believes that
the inadequacies of wordless books are actually their strength; that in leaving some things vague
they allow their young viewers to be creative (Words about Pictures, p.190).
If the pictures are interesting or attractive [in these books], even very young children can
learn to interpret and enjoy stories told in pictures without words. Furthermore, children tend to
express their enjoyment of wordless books by telling, in words, the stories the pictures suggest to
them; they themselves turn purely visual experiences into verbal ones, a practice that surely must
aid in the development of literacy (Words about Pictures, p. 186). My niece and nephew
proved this statement to be true. The three year old loved Mouse Letters by Jim Arnosky
because of its size and the mouse. Her first uttered words were mouse under water. During the
second reading, she used the much known words once upon a time.
Perry Nodelman wrote that stories in [wordless picture books] can be told by many
different children in many different ways. Because these books have no words to focus our
attention on their meaningful or important narrative details, they require from us both close
attention and a wide knowledge of the visual conventions that must be attended to before visual

images can imply stories (Words about Pictures, pp.186-87). This was so true for my sevenyear-old nephew. When he got introduced to my favorite wordless picture book, Deep in the
Forest by Brinton Turkle, he readily recognized that it was a retelling of Goldilocks and the
Three Bears. I chuckled as I heard him use the power of his voice to become the characters in
the story.
Because the illustrations in the books are generally beautifully detailed [they] can be
used to develop the language of description (Using wordless picture books to promote second
language learning, p. 245). In April Wilsons Magpie Magic: A Tale of Colorful Mischief, I
perceived that the magpie was curious, observant, resourceful, sneaky, playful, cautious,
naughty, and determined.
Words about Pictures mentions four important elements of wordless picture books: The
choices of media and color and style that communicate mood and atmosphere; the conventional
meanings of gestures and facial expression, and also of dress and furniture and such, that
communicate information about social status and interior attitude; the various uses of color and
line and shape that point to important figures in pictures and imply their relative significance
(Words about Pictures, p. 186-187).
I saw the truth of this statement as I read Wave by Suzy Lee. She chose black and
charcoal gray to represent earthly elements and used blue to convey the sea and sky. She
powerfully used facial expressions and body poses to show the emotions of the little girl. To
further communicate her intention, she had the seagulls mimic the girl, except at one point when
they proved that they were smarter than the girl and kept to their course instead of turning to
tease Mother Nature. Though the book is technically mute, the environment depicted is not. As
the reader turns the pages, one can almost hear the crashing of the waves, the cries of the

seagulls, and the girls shouts of glee. The book is long horizontally and short vertically, which
makes one feel that they are actually at the beach. The layout of the book is a double-page
spread which effectively acts to create a boundary between the earth and the sea. It is also a
book of discovery and a story about a childs growing self-confidence. After reading this book, I
wanted to go to the beach.
Wordless picture books demand great focus on what is depicted in the drawings and if
we encourage children to misuse wordless books in their attempts to find stories in them by
ignoring details the pictures actually do show, then these books will indeed be the threat to
literacy that some commentators believe them to be. But viewed with an attitude of respect for
the communicative powers of visual codes of signification, wordless books can be as powerful a
source of education in the attentiveness basic to literacy as are books with words (Words about
Pictures, p.190-191).
An example of this is shown in Sidewalk Circus by Paul Fleischman and Kevin Hawkes,
there is no narrative text. The reader makes a connection between what is depicted as normal
everyday life happenings in the city block with the advertisements which are being hung up to
announce the coming circus. There is no specific story plot, but careful attention must be paid to
the shadows. The shadows connect reality with imagination.
The titles of contemporary wordless picture books also play a large part in determining
our response to them (Words about Pictures, p.185). I was immediately drawn to The Grey
Lady and the Strawberry Snatcher by Molly Bang because I love strawberries. To other readers
the title might suggest a story filled with adventure. The gray lady reference brings to mind an
elderly woman. However, the illustrator had a different visualization of what a gray lady would
entailcamouflage. The reader must discover where she is hidden.

Although this genre is classified as wordless, some books include a few words. Hug by
Jez Alborough is an example of this. Three words are included in this book: hug, Bobo,
Mommy. In my house, there is a controversy about whether this book needs the words or not.
My mother believes that they add to the story, my father and I believe that the story is more
powerful when the words are taken away. Either way, this is an endearing story about a
community working together to help one member obtain his desire of getting a hug from his
mom. In the course of the adventure, the community is changed and become united in a new
way. This insight is not immediately perceived by the reader, but a further study of the story
reveals this truth. Thus, wordless picture books are indeed great sources for the development of
literacy and definitely should be classified as picture books. The book Hug illustrates that
wordless picture books need to be read with careful attention to the illustrations and have many
different underlining themes within them.

Bibliography
Alborough, Jez. Hug. Massachusetts: Candlewick Press, 2000.
Arnosky, Jim. Mouse Letters: A Very First Alphabet Book. New York: Clarion Books, 1999.
Bang, Molly. The Grey Lady and the Strawberry Snatcher. New York: Simon & Schuster Books
for Young Readers, 1980
Dowhower, Sarah. Wordless Books: Promise and Possibilities, A Genre Come of Age.
Dowhower.pdf.
Early, Margaret. Using wordless picture books to promote second language learning. Oxford
University Press, 1991.
Fleischman, Paul, and Kevin Hawkes. Sidewalk Circus. Massachusetts: Candlewick Press, 2004.
Hintz, Carrie and Eric L. Tribunella. Reading Childrens Literature: A Critical Introduction.
New York: Bedford, 2013.
Lee, Suzy. Wave. San Francisco: Chronicle Books LLC, 2008.
Nodelman, Perry. Words about Pictures: The Narrative Art of Childrens Picture Books. Athens,
Georgia: The University of Georgia Press, 1988.
Ramos, Rui, and Ana Margarida Ramos. Ecoliteracy Through Imagery: A Close Reading of
Two Wordless Picture Books. Springer Sciences + Business Media, published online 20
August 2011.
Turkle, Brinton. Deep in the Forest. New York, Puffin Books, 1976.
Wilson, April. Magpie Magic: A Tale of Colorful Mischief. New York:Dial Books for Young
Readers, 1999.