Anyone who works with children’s books will have, at one point or another, heard someone explain that a book is not for them because it doesn’t have ‘enough words’. And some of the time that’s certainly valid – getting the right balance between words and pictures is an art form.
Reading with young children, though, is often an exercise in meandering away from the written story. Picking up clues from the pictures, questions follow and independent stories emerge. This visual literacy is something we don’t talk about much, despite the fact that it’s intrinsically tied up with attention to detail and creativity.
So today we’re shouting about wordless (or almost wordless) picture books. And not just the ones for prereaders – also those which are engaging for older children. Here are ten of our current favourites.
The Red Book by Barbara Lehman (Houghton Mifflin INR 799)
A fantastical tale in which two children (a girl in what looks like a wintery New York, and a boy on a tropical beach) each find a red book, and discover that they can see one another through its pages. Something about the square format combined with the simple illustrations works perfectly, and this is a wonderful allegory for the potential books have to connect people – especially if you share them.
Do! by Gita Wolf (Tara Books, INR 150)
Illustrated in the Warli style of folk art from Maharashtra, Do! is not quite wordless – each double page spread has a single word – which could be anything from ‘Farm’ and ‘Grow’ to ‘Dance’ and ‘Play’. A fascinating insight into village life, with plenty of visual stories to discover on every page. Plus, it neatly finishes by encouraging you to try drawing in the Warli style yourself.
Mr Wuffles! by David Wiesner (Anderson Press, INR 599)
A cat chances upon an alien spaceship in this delightfully absurd picture book, in which Wiesner manages to convey layers of humour and irony through illustration and a single (very well chosen) line of text. Lovely because it mixes the everyday with the fantastical to great effect. We also like the fact that the division between words and pictures is blurred by the ‘alien script’ spoken by the creatures the cat encounters.
Flutterfly by Niveditha Subramaniam (Tulika, INR 160)
Black and white pencil drawings are illuminated by a single splash of colour on every page, as a butterfly guides us through a child’s dreams, as he thinks back over his day. A brave foray into wordless territory by Indian publisher Tulika.
Time Flies by Eric Rohmann (Dragonfly Books INR 250)
Dusky colours and shadows capture the atmosphere of a natural history museum after closing time, as a small bird flies through the exhibits. That is, until, the bird takes us on a flight of fantasy in which we can see the dinosaurs and prehistoric creatures as they lived.
Tuesday by David Wiesner (Random House INR 450)
Tuesday may seem like a rather mundane day, but the Tuesday in this book is anything but ordinary, when toads fly into town on lily pads, looking every bit the part of aliens. There are a few carefully chosen words (in this case times) which manage to convey a great deal. Perhaps the best bit is the closing page: ‘Next Tuesday, 7.58pm’ – but we won’t spoil the surprise about what is flying into town then!
Quest by Aaron Becker (Walker, INR 499)
In the sequel to The Journey, two children are given a map and mission by a mysterious king, before he is captured. Armed with coloured pens and the ability to draw themselves out of trouble, so begins their quest. If anything shows that you don’t need words to tell an intricate and moving story, it’s this.
Welcome to Mamoko by Aleksandra Mizielinska and Daniel Mizielinska (Big Picture Press, INR 935)
Beautifully illustrated in quirky style and produced as a sturdy hardback, Mamoko is wordless apart from the introductory page, which tells you a little about each of the characters you’ll encounter as you read on. We’ve found that you can pour over the book multiple times, following each wacky character in turn.
Flotsam by David Wiesner (Anderson Press, INR 299)
He really is a master wordless storyteller, so we don’t even feel bad that this is the third book by David Wiesner on this list. This is potentially our favourite – though it’s a very close call. When a boy goes to the beach to find flotsam, he discovers a lot more than he bargained for, in the form of an old camera. Again, a bit like The Red Book, we love the way this brings out the connections between children – in this case over time, rather than geographically.
Pancakes for Breakfast by Tomie De Paola (Voyager Books, INR 350)
A good one for connecting us back to where our food actually comes from! When an old lady wakes up dreaming of pancakes and maple syrup for breakfast, she runs into a few storeroom obstacles. No eggs? Then better visit the chickens. No milk? Then it’s time to milk the cow. Run out of maple syrup? A trip to a neighbour who has maple trees is in order. But even once she has all the ingredients, everything still doesn’t quite go to plan …