Saturday, October 30, 2010

In Praise of Wordless Books

This year's Caldecott Medal winner -- The Lion & the Mouse by Jerry Pinkney -- has only seven words, all sound effects. The 2007 Caldecott winner -- Flotsam by David Wiesner -- is also a wordless book. This is perhaps not as surprising as it initially seems when it is recalled that the Caldecott Medal recognizes "the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children". Still, children's books are usually assumed to have some words, some sort of written story or text, even if it is short. If you look at customer reviews for The Lion & the Mouse or other wordless books on Amazon, you will invariably find a few disgruntled customers who are unhappy at having got a book that is "just pictures".
But wordless books are not just books without words or mere pictures. They tell a story through pictures. While a story told in pictures may invariably be more open to interpretation than a story told with words and pictures, a story can be found in the pictures ... and this story can be related orally.
And this is where I come to write in praise of wordless books. Wordless books give both children and adults a chance to experience and participate in storytelling in a different way and be challenged and affected by story in ways that may stretch their verbal, interpretive, and narrative skills. And a lot of the impact of wordless children's books comes from the fact that they simply are in the minority. The fact is that most kids' books do have a lot more than 7 words. Usually, the story is written down, and we don't have to look for it in the same way we do when it's "written" in the pictures.
For adults in a lot of sectors of American society, we're not particularly challenged by the task of reading a children's storybook aloud. We're used to reading aloud, have done it since we were kids, and we pretty much know the routine. We may hone our skills a bit, learn to add more dramatic flourishes to our rendition, but we pretty much know what we're doing. But recent brain research has shown that it is by constantly developing new skills that we stay mentally sharp (see for example, The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge). While we all know famously talented storytellers, oral storytelling without a text is challenging and a little bit scary for many of us. Yet, that's just why it's so important -- we stretch, expand, and ultimately change our brains by doing so. Same thing with kids. And one way to tell a story, or to collaborate in telling a story, is to use a wordless book as a jumping off point. And since many of these books are illustrated by incredibly talented artists, we get the wonderful chance of enjoying their art in reading these books.
So don't be scared, don't be deterred. Think about adding some wordless books to your home library. They truly can be enjoyed by all ages! Other wordless books that have received very positive reviews in recent years include:
The Red Book by Barbara Lehman
Good Dog, Carl by Alexandra Day
Wave by Suzy Lee
And look for other books by David Wiesner and Jerry Pinkney.
And keep in mind that this list is in no way comprehensive. Feel free to leave a comment if you'd like to recommend another great wordless book. Thanks!

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