Open “I Got It!,” the new baseball-inspired picture book by David Wiesner, and you’ll immediately notice two things: the exquisite artwork, and the lack of text. That’s typical of Wiesner, whose books generally have few, if any, words.
It’s a winning choice for Wiesner, a three-time recipient of the Caldecott Medal, awarded annually to “the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children.”
Veteran picture book creator Matthew Cordell also has found Caldecott success with a wordless book. When Cordell began working on his picture book “Wolf in the Snow,” it had narrative text and dialogue, but he kept paring down the text until it was gone. Cordell’s artistic hunch was right: “Wolf in the Snow” ended up winning the 2018 Caldecott Medal.
Like many children’s librarians, I’m a fan of wordless books. I often use them in programs and recommend them regularly to kids and adults. Still, I encounter resistance from some parents, who complain that wordless books “are too much work,” especially at bedtime after a long day. They say that it’s just easier to read text than to try to “read the pictures” and tell the story themselves – or even to have their children tell it to them.
Wiesner is familiar with this complaint. “It’s gotten better, but there’s still a resistance,” he said in an interview. “A lot of people pick up a wordless book and say, ‘I don’t know what to do with this thing.’ It’s unfortunate because it is such an opportunity to have a conversation with your child. They can read it to you. It may be a little more work to read a wordless book. But what an opportunity to have this back-and-forth with your child.”
Kids are pros at picking up story clues in picture book illustrations. Adults may miss it, but children will readily observe, for example, how Wiesner uses different art styles to convey various kinds of time in “I Got It!” or how Cordell enlarges his images of the girl and the wolf to heighten the drama in “Wolf in the Snow.” Even very young children can narrate the story from what they see in the illustrations, making read-aloud time at home a far more interactive experience than it might be with a book that has lots of text.
Sometimes called “silent books,” wordless books aren’t always totally without text. In “I Got It!,” for example, the title phrase is repeated a couple of times, and Cordell included words for the wolves’ howls in “Wolf in the Snow.” For the most part, however, the pictures tell the story in a wordless book.
Wordless books can also help readers overcome language barriers. That’s why the Canadian government decided in 2015 to give every Syrian refugee family a wordless picture book, “Sidewalk Flowers.” The book, with a story by JonArno Lawson and illustrations by Sydney Smith, was chosen specifically because you didn’t have to understand English to understand the story.
Tess Prendergast, a public librarian in Vancouver, British Columbia, said wordless books generally offer families learning English “a stress-free way” of reading together. “I also think wordless picture books are great for helping adults who may struggle with reading aloud to be more willing to share books with their children,” Prendergast said in an interview. “Children need positive associations with books so looking at pictures and talking about them together with people who love them will give them that experience whether the books are full or words or not.”
But wordless books provide all students, not just those learning English, with important learning opportunities, said Laura Given, the library media specialist at the Parkview Center School in Roseville, Minn. “Drawing conclusions and making inferences are important, foundational skills for students. Wordless books are the perfect tool to develop and practice inferential thinking.”
Wordless books “also broaden students’ idea of what is ‘real reading.’ The more we broaden that idea, the more students will see themselves as readers,” Given added.
At home, parents can use wordless books to have a conversation with their children, asking kids what they see in the illustrations and what it means to the story. “Suddenly they are freed from the text on the page, and kids can tell incredibly inventive stories,” Wiesner said.
Reading wordless books “slows us down,” Cordell said. “It forces us to think and observe and analyze the pictures and the art and the artist’s intent. It forces us to ask questions of one another and to have a discussion about the book we’re reading.
“I do understand that in these fast-paced and impatient times we are living in, slowing down to read a wordless book can be especially difficult. But slowing down to have an experience as meaningful and complex as this is more important than ever.”
Karen MacPherson is the children’s and teen services coordinator for the Takoma Park, Md., library.