In the Absence of Words: Why Share Wordless Picture Books With Your Kids
September 22, 2016 § 2 Comments
A few days before summer break ended, a giant box arrived from Candlewick publishing, containing a number of advance copies of fall releases. Candlewick is one of my favorite publishers—also one of the most generous supporters of my blog—and the buzz in our house when one of their boxes arrives is akin to Christmas morning. The kids and I tore open the box and quickly identified new installments in some of our favorite series (the new Princess in Black comes out in November, as well as the third in the “hat” stories by the dry-witted Jon Klassen; both are fabulous).
But there was one book that—hands down!—got the loudest squeals and the highest jumps as soon as my kids laid eyes on it. Aaron Becker’s Return (Ages 5-10) is the much-anticipated finale of a wordless trilogy about a girl, her red crayon, and the otherworldly adventures to which her art and her imagination transport her (I wrote about the first title, Journey, back in 2013, before it went on to win a Caldecott Honor).
Wordless books can be a hard sell. They can be an especially hard sell for parents, because what exhausted parent wants the pressure of making up a narrative when the relief of bedtime is so near? How can I read a book with no words? Can’t my kid just look at that on his own?
Hear me out.
For starters, education researchers have long touted the value of wordless picture books as a tool for pre-literacy. When children are learning to read—when they’re caught in that delicate balance of needing to cherish small successes but not fully versed in phonograms and sight words—they can look to pictures for valuable clues about what the text might be saying. (He’s picking up a fork, so that word must be “fork”; there’s a grimace on his face as he’s eating, so that must mean the words are going to be about him not liking it).
When children are forced to extract a narrative from pictures alone, they become well versed at using visual clues to decode text.
I would argue that the value of wordless picture books extends well past the early-reading stage. Wordless books can help make close readers of our children, a vital skill for academic success at every grade level.
Especially in the hands of a visual wizard like Becker, the reader is rewarded for every extra second he or she takes to study the pictures. On nearly every spread in Journey, Quest, and Return, there is mystery, intrigue, wonder, and confusion. Repeated readings only deepen our experience, reveal things that our eyes—in our haste—missed the first time.
Let’s talk about that haste for a minute. (We are listening to Charlotte’s Web in the car these days, so I feel inspired to quote the wise Charlotte: “…with men it’s rush, rush, rush, every minute. I’m glad I’m a sedentary spider.”)
When my nine year old tears through beloved series like The Hardy Boys, Hazardous Tales, and I Survived, I can’t help but wonder: how carefully does he read? Does he skip over passages when he doesn’t understand? Does he take time to notice the language, the details of a setting, or the way a character is described? Does he have an opinion about the book, other than “It was epic!”?
I try very hard not to scrutinize or judge (outwardly) my children’s reading habits. If my kids are reading, I want them to read—without my asking loaded questions about whether they’ve finished a book or what they are learning from the story or whether they will read aloud parts to me. I want them to read for the love of the thing. I want them to discover their own motivations for reading outside parental or adult pressure.
Instead, I try to model good books and good reading practices. I choose books to read aloud that showcase beautiful language, complex characters, and plots rich in shades of grey and murky emotions. I often share aloud my own feelings about the things we’re reading. I tell them which questions are giving me pause. Much of the time, they are quick to join me in conversation.
As it turns out, I don’t have to be reading books with words to accomplish that.
Weeks back, when that box showed up at our doorstep and my kids jumped up with Return in their hands, then ran through various rooms to locate the first two titles in the trilogy so that we could read all three books straight through, I was reminded that sharing wordless picture books with our children can be another immensely valuable way to teach them to slow down and cherish the intricacies of a story.
It’s a credit to Aaron Becker just how hard my children and I are willing to work to interpret his lantern-hung forests, his purple skies, and the rock-clad walls of his prophetic caves. (Interesting side note: in the author’s bio printed on the jacket cover of the newest book, we learn that the exotic kingdom depicted in the trilogy, with its lavish domes and flowing canals and frenetic kings and emperors, is inspired by Becker’s visit as a child to Mont-Saint-Michel in Normandy, France—the same walled island we all grew to love in the 2015 Pulitzer Prize winner, All the Light We Cannot See).
Here’s the gist of what my kids and I have surmised from the time we’ve spent with these books.
In Journey, a girl escapes boredom by drawing a doorway into a magical land and inadvertently finding herself in the center of an enslavement plot. Her creativity, along with the artistic aid of a like-minded boy, guides her safely home again, while at the same time giving her the companionship she has been seeking.
In Quest, Becker’s second book, the girl with the red crayon and her new friend with the purple crayon are drawn back into the mysterious world, where greater intrigue and suspense greet them. We learn that their crayons are part of a larger set of six that, in the right hands, can return color and freedom and prosperity to this grey and conflict-laden kingdom.
Now at last, in Return, we are given the final pieces of the puzzle. It was my son who came up with the idea that the bad guys aren’t simply after the crayons; they’re after art. Or, rather, they’re out to destroy the transformative power of making art. It was also my son who pointed out details that I initially missed: how the green emanating from the emperor’s boat is a sickly, unnatural green, a slime green, a green that somehow instinctively identifies him as evil.
Our reading of these books is full of “Wait, look at that!” and “Oh, now I get it,” and “But what it THAT?” Three heads huddled over the same book. Three sets of fingers pointing. Three voices contributing to one shared understanding.
Perhaps there’s a third, even more powerful benefit that comes from sharing wordless picture books with our children—and that’s the opportunity to collaborate with them.
I’ve been thinking about this issue a lot, as we make the difficult transition into the rigidity of fall routines: of rushing to school, of rushing home from school, of trying to get dinner on the table and everyone to bed at an early hour so that we can make some semblance of an attempt at doing it all over again the next day.
Too often, I parent from a place of authority rather than a place of collaboration. But how can I insist that my children develop flexibility unless I am willing to demonstrate It myself? Wordless picture book, like the Journey trilogy (and I’ve listed other favorites at the end of this post), present a rare gift for us parents to embrace the benefits of honoring our children as partners, rather than progeny.
Appropriately, this happens to be precisely how the trilogy concludes. If the first book casts a less-than-favorable light on the girl’s parents—her mother chatting on the phone while cooking, her father too busy on his computer to respond to the girl’s entreaties to play—the third book spins a more optimistic narrative.
Return begins when the father looks up from his work and, seeing his daughter’s kite dropped at his feet, goes in search of her.
When he finds her red door, he ducks and enters—until he, too, is a character in the vivid magical world that has bewitched his daughter on so many occasions. As it turns out, and as the girl only recognizes once she has forgiven his indifference and welcomed him into her imagination, the father has a critical role to play in the unfolding drama. The two share an adventure which, not only brings them closer together, but reveals a secret about the father’s own history with art and imagination. A door once closed has opened again for him.
We do not need words on a page to comprehend the sheer joy on the girl’s face at the realization that she has an accomplice in her beloved parent. (Hint: see if your child picks up on the subtle change in the endpapers from the beginning of Return to the end; my daughter had to show me, and I almost broke down sobbing, so close to home did it hit.)
In a few months—and at a time when we aren’t rushing—I plan to get out these books again and encourage my kids to look at them alongside me with fresh eyes. I imagine they won’t need convincing. I think we’ve only scratched the surface of what we can discover and interpret and learn from these sensational pages.
Updated Nov 2017: The Journey trilogy BOX SET is now available: gorgeously packaged and including a never-before-released print!
Other Favorite Wordless Picture Books:
Hank Finds an Egg, by Rebecca Dudley (Ages 3-6)
Flashlight, by Lizi Boyd (Ages 3-6)
The Farmer and the Clown, by Marla Frazee (Ages 4-8; I challenge you to get through this story of connection without tearing up.)
Sidewalk Flowers, by JonArno Lawson & Sydney Smith (Ages 4-8)
Pool, by Jihyeon Lee (Ages 4-8, reviewed by me here)
The Girl and the Bicycle and The Boy and the Airplane, by Mark Prett (Ages 4-8)
Fox’s Garden, by Princesse Camcam (Ages 4-8)
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Review copy provided by Candlewick. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!