Posted 5 a.m. Wednesday, May 3, 2023
The complexity of wordless picture books
By Teri Holford
Recently, UW-La Crosse Professor Ann Epstein, who specializes in Early Childhood Education, requested a library instruction session in the Alice Hagar Curriculum Center so her students could learn how to evaluate wordless picture books.
A picture book without text may seem like an oxymoron. Picture books usually live up to their reputation of words and images working together in tandem to offer the reader a pleasant and agreeable reading experience. After all, picture books are the bedrock of literacy for young children because they introduce the magic of words through sounds, repetition, alliteration and new vocabulary. Students who attended this instruction session were first introduced to the library’s collection of wordless picture books with a hands-on activity of thumbing through a few selected books. After allowing their eyes to adjust to processing pages without words, they quickly realized that the experience differs from “reading” in that the art in high-quality, wordless picture books carries the story effortlessly from page to page. Nothing falls flat. Not only does the story flow, but the reader becomes engaged in new ways because reading a wordless picture book offers a different kind of participatory experience. The reader actively drives the story in their own way, with their own words and imagination, turning the experience into a lively literacy adventure and conversation.
Wordless picture books have been around for a long time. The first one published in the United States was Ruth Carroll’s "What Whiskers Did" (1932). While not many others were published in the decades that followed, author-artists and publishers caught on again much later when author-artist David Wiesner published a series of wordless picture books in the 1980s and 1990s. Other author-artists, whose wordless picture books can be found in Murphy Library are Arthur Geisert, Barbara Lehman, Mark Pett, Aaron Becker, and Suzy Lee.
There is more to observe in wordless picture books besides just the story. Despite the fact that students in this instruction session were learning to evaluate wordless picture books in the context of early childhood literacy, they were encouraged to look past the quality of the art and closely examine other visuals, such as how the artist uses the space on the page. Between 1932 and into the 1980s, the artwork, for the most part, took up the entire page to communicate what was happening and advance the story. Starting in the later part of the 1980s, the content on the page started to break up and fragment into bits of story separated by white space or frames, offering the readers’ eyes a new visual experience. Students were asked to ponder and possibly consider researching whether children at this early age are cognitively able to piece together a story this way (the American Academy of Pediatrics has determined that the age range of early childhood begins before birth through eight years).
Besides the quality of the art and the use of space on a page, another aspect of evaluating wordless picture books is to examine the content itself. More recent wordless picture books are now bringing stories and experiences that may need an extra layer of consideration, especially for the early childhood age range. In Ukrainian author-artist Oleksandr Shatokhin’s "Yellow Butterfly, A Story From Ukraine," published in 2023, the story of a girl experiencing war is defly expressed using a monochromatic palette of black, white and gray, along with carefully added touches of yellow butterflies that sometimes distract the girl from her war-torn world to lift her up and carry her away to past happy memories. Shatokhin’s art expresses alliteration similar to words: repetition, patterns and scale portray a girl’s emotions as she tries to process the daily realities of war.
In another book, Peruvian author-artist Issa Watanabe’s "Migrants," published in 2020, takes an honest and hard look at migrants. Her colors are stark against solid black pages. A mixed group of animal migrants on the run is followed closely by the figure of death as a skeleton traveling with an ibis. As the group moves across the pages toward a place yet to be defined, they endure many hardships. Not all make it through the forest, to the river, on the boat. Death is never far behind. This book is unapologetic in its portrayal of displaced groups searching for a better life.
One last observation that students of this instruction session learned firsthand is that wordless picture books can reverse roles. No longer is the story coming uniquely from the adult reading the text. The child participates, interprets and propels the story with their own words and ideas. And there is nothing wrong with shaking things up a bit.
Interested in accessing wordless picture books in the Alice Hagar Curriculum Center? See available titles in the library’s catalog.