Sunday, 13 October 2013

What's The Magic of Wordless Picture Books? by Pippa Goodhart


I love the lyrical text of a picture book such as Malachy’s ‘Dancing Tiger’.  I love the pow zap language action of comic strip stories.  I love the expressive font usage of particular words in Lauren Child’s ‘That Pesky Rat’.  I love the use of pictures as if they were words in Polly Dunbar’s ‘Penguin’.  But I also love picture books with no words in them at all.  In fact I have an ambition to be the author of a book with no words in it at all.  I want to dream-up visual story or stories that will be realised by somebody else – an artist – and I want my picture ideas to be enough without words.

Why?  Because pictures on their own leave the audience to do the work of noticing all there is to notice; the job of joining the visual story dots to create the story that is probably more truly their own personal version of the book story than is the case when there are words to guide you. 

Many modern reading schemes now begin with simple wordless picture books in order to give children the experience of ‘reading’ a story in a way that all can access, without the skills for decoding text being necessary.  They get children into the habit of reading story (as they will with text) from left to right, turning pages from beginning to end. 

But, more excitingly than that, wordless books make children use their story imaginations, and gives them the chance to express those stories in their own words.  And this isn’t just true for small children, of course.  Shaun Tan’s ‘Arrival’ is a wordless picture book that stretches adult imagination in the most brilliant ways. 
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These books become story creating experiences that hand story power to the audience.  Instead of listening to an adult reading out prescribed words, any words (if any are even needed) come from you.  That’s exciting, and involves an author/illustrator who dares to trust their audience to handle the story themselves.

 Apparently studies have shown that parents ‘reading’ wordless picture books to children use much more sophisticated language than would normally be found in a picture book text.  So maybe, ironically, wordless picture books extend children’s vocabulary more than those with words?


What are my favourite wordless picture books? 

Beatrix Rodriquez wonderful stories about a ‘Fox and Hen’ are exciting, funny, moving and memorable. 

Raymond Briggs’ ‘Snowman’, shown in wordless cartoon, has of course become a classic, although many versions of the story now have words added, which seems a shame.
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Jeannie Baker’s ‘Home’ is most moving and challenging ‘Home’ and other titles are important books for a wide age range. 
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Quentin Blake’s ‘Clown’ is another moving tale.
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Come to think of it, all these examples are of quite challenging stories.  Perhaps wordlessness is a way to cope with what might be uncomfortable if it were to be articulated?  What do you think?

12 comments:

  1. I love wordless books too, Pippa. We have Jan Ormerod's wonderful 'Moonlight' on our shelves and, like you, I also think 'The Arrival' is sheer genius. Lovely post :)

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    1. Ah, yes, Jan Ormerod's Moonlight and Sunlight and 101 Things To Do With A Baby are all wonderful examples of really comforting and kindly humorous wordless books that simply visually chart ordinary life. So wordless books aren't all challenging, after all!

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  2. What a great selection, Pippa. My son loved Flotsam by David Wiesner, and so did I. You're right. it was lovely to read together even though there were no words. It was soothing and there was a strong sense of sharing our imaginations as we looked together at the story unfolding. Last year I did 'write' a first 'reader with no words, for Collins. I had to pick photos to go with the title 'What's in the Egg', and try to build in an unspoken narrative, and lots of different types of egg. It may have had no words, but it took a lot of thinking about, I can tell you!

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    1. I bet your Egg book works beautifully as a starting point for discussion, Moira. You are spot on in saying that it's the sharing of imaginations as two or more people make what they will of a sequence of pictures. It's a creative process, and perhaps works even better when the process is shared.

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  3. Shaun Tan's books are amazing, and wonderfully thought-provoking. I must look out Beatrice Rodriguez. I'd love to write a wordless picture book. The least I've managed is 60 words (The Happy Book). Oh, and thanks for the mention of Dancing Tiger, Pippa.

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  4. I've just counted up my shortest picture book text (Pudding), and it's 55 words long. But brilliant Martin Waddell's Great Green Mouse Disaster has only one word ("Meeeow!"), even though it gets repeated. And I'd still like to achieve non at all.

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  5. I think your own books are pretty perfect and almost wordless, Pippa. Writing a wordless picture book is very difficult, if you're not illustrating it yourself. The first hurdle is convincing the publisher that it is worthwhile and even possible. I'm sure your next book will be wordless, because you've got what it takes.

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  6. You do say the nicest things, Ragnhild! Now I shall REALLY have to have a go at one! Many thanks.

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  7. I share your enthusiasm, Pippa. Looking through the wordless pictures books in our house, they're sophisticated and aimed at 5 years - 105 years. 'Tuesday' by David Wiesner is practically wordless and makes me smile (surreal flying frogs!). 'Zoom' by Istvan Banyai is clever and invites the reader (viewer?) to look closer and he has done other in the 'series'. 'Mirror' by Jeannie Baker explains what the book is about, but the two 'stories' are wordless. And I have 'Window' by Jeannie Baker, which I assume is similar to 'Home'? But all are illustrated and written by the same person. I wonder what the illustrator would think if given a wordless book ('written' by an author) to illustrate?

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  8. I don't know that flying frogs one - I must go and find it at once! Thank you, Paeony.

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  9. Hi Pippa, Like you, an ambition of mine is to have a wordless picture book of mine published. My favourite story of mine that I've written (not picked up by a publisher yet) is 25 words long, but actually, it doesn't need any of those words. They're pretty much there so it's less scary to an editor. I think it's so so hard to get an editor interested if you're a writer but not an illustrator. But I'll keep trying. Great to see a few suggestions up that I've not seen as I'll get hold of them (I don't know Home or Fox and Hen Together). I've also got The Conductor, Mitsumasa Anno, and I LOVE The Red Book and all the books by Ali Mitgutsch (although in his, each spread is an amazing picture with loads going on). And as you say, they're fantastic for encouraging conversation between parent and child and developing language. Thanks! Clare.

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  10. Agreed, wordless picture books are fab! I love yours, Pippa - and like Moira, I'm a great fan of Flotsam by David Wiesner. I imagine they're very, very difficult to pitch to a publisher when you're not an illustrator.

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