In the Absence of Words: Why Share Wordless Picture Books With Your Kids

September 22, 2016 § 1 Comment

The Journey Trilogy by Aaron BeckerA 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).

"Journey" by Aaron Becker

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.

"Journey" by Aaron Becker

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.

"Quest" by Aaron Becker

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.

"Return" by Aaron Becker

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.

"Return" by Aaron Becker

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.

"Return" by Aaron Becker

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!

For the Romantic (A Valentine’s Post)

February 4, 2016 § 5 Comments

"The Most Wonderful Thing in the World" by Vivian FrenchIf you’ve been following my blog for awhile now (thank you!), it’s no secret that I like non-traditional recommendations for Valentine’s Day. In past years, I’ve typically favored off-beat stories about friendship bonds, as opposed to the saccharine hearts and hugs that publishers seem to push this time of year. I’m referring to gems such as this and these and this; and if I was going to continue my friendship trend this year, I would be singing the praises of Salina Yoon’s new lovely and understated Be a Friend.

Instead, I’ve decided that this February calls for a bit of high romance, inspired by a fairy tale that has been exquisitely re-imagined by Angela Barrett and Vivian French. I had initially intended to feature The Most Wonderful Thing in the World (Ages 5-10) in my December holiday gift guide, but I never found the right spot for it. Now, it occurs to me that I was subconsciously waiting until the Holiday of Love to tell you about a story that sings of universal love at its most transcendent.

The Most Wonderful Thing in the World belongs to a class of picture books that I think of as more appropriately suited for the elementary child, as opposed to the preschool ages typically associated with picture books. I’m always saddened when parents tell me that their household has “moved beyond” picture books. As if mellifluous language and spellbinding art were something one would ever hope to graduate from (not to mention the ornate vocabulary and abstract ideas in many of these mature picture books)! Please, I beg of you, no matter how much your children begin to sink their teeth into the expansive world of chapter books, don’t leave behind picture books entirely. The best teachers know their importance and use them in elementary, middle, and—in an increasing trend—even high schools. Their spines may be thin, but they are worth their weight in gold.

British illustrator Angela Barrett originally approached Scottish author Vivian French about collaborating on a contemporary retelling of one of Barrett’s favorite tales as a child. The premise of The Most Wonderful Thing in the World is as old as the hills (one could call it a more refined riff on Jolly Roger Bradfield’s outlandishly entertaining Pickle-Chiffon Pie, which has always been something of an obsession in our house). A king and queen stage a contest to find their daughter a husband. Advised by “wise Old Angelo,” the royal parents decree that they will marry the princess to the suitor who shows them “the most wonderful thing in the world.” The expectation being that only the richest, most powerful suitor will triumph.

"The Most Wonderful Thing in the World" by Vivian French & Angela Barrett

Before you get all “please tell me we aren’t still writing about girls as pawns in the hands of oppressive traditions,” let me tell you about Princess Lucia. The curious and clever princess, whom her genuinely loving but prohibitively overprotective parents have never escorted outside the walls of the palace, takes advantage of her parents’ preoccupation with the contest to gain permission to explore the kingdom that she will someday rule. She beseeches the help of a common man, whom she encounters playing with a tabby cat beside the canal. “I am Salvatore, pretty lady, and I am entirely at your service. Today, tomorrow, and the next day, until you have seen all that you want.” He may not be a prince or a duke or an earl, but he knows every inch of the sidewalks and canals of the city, including the ”hidden heart,” where “the grand never thought to go.” Lucia, we quickly understand, intends to be a Queen of the People.

"The Most Wonderful Thing in the World" by Vivian French & Angela Barrett

Angela Barrett—the same artist who did the enchanting watercolors for The Night Fairy (I mean, I thought I was obsessed then…)—has set this fairy tale in a magnificently adorned Edwardian Venice, with winding canals and gilded architecture at every turn.

"The Most Wonderful Thing in the World" by Vivian French & Angela Barrett

Barrett’s intricate art is mesmerizing in its own right, but it’s when we combine it with the lyrical prose of Vivian French—the same author who wrote, among others, this clever book—that the real magic happens. How we envy Lucia the chance to explore every nook and cranny, every light and shadow, of this island!

They walked through bustling markets where
golden oranges were heaped in piles, and under grand
marble arches; they gazed at velvet-curtained mansions
and balconies festooned with flowers; and they counted
the tall towers of the city cathedral.

"The Most Wonderful Thing in the World" by Vivian French & Angela Barrett

Of equal interest—or perhaps more, if my children’s reactions are any indication—is what is happening back at the royal palace, while Lucia is off exploring the city. Potential suitors are carting through the doors one splendor after another, hoping to pass off one as “the most wonderful thing in the world.” The parade begins with “a hundred roses” and “a snow-white horse” and becomes progressively more obscure, with “acrobats and airships, pyramids and performing dogs, mysterious magical beasts, and a piece of frozen sky.” Pouring over these double-page spreads, we discover countless additional treasures not even named (my kids were especially taken by the Tin Mn, having just finished The Wonderful Wizard of Oz).

"The Most Wonderful Thing in the World" by Vivian French & Angela Barrett

What constitutes beauty and wonder? How do we compare one splendor to another? These are deliciously enticing questions for our children to ponder. (By the way, French’s wry humor comes through more than once and lends a touch of modern sensibility to the tale. When the last suitor departs with his “weapons of mass destruction,” the queen asks, “How can anyone believe weapons are the most wonderful thing in the world?”)

"The Most Wonderful Thing in the World" by Vivian French & Angela Barrett

Our two story lines ultimately intersect along “heavy hearts.” The stumped king and queen are reluctant to deem anything they’ve seen “the most wonderful thing in the world,” and so they are without a worthy suitor for their cherished daughter. Salvatore and Lucia are equally distraught, having no more excuses to spend time together now that they have finished exploring the city. Salvatore rows home to his own tiny island and laments to his grandfather, who happens to be Old Angelo, that he loves a girl he can never marry.

Old Angelo took off his spectacles, rubbed them clean and
put them on again. “It seems to me that the answer is easy.
You must show the king and queen the most wonderful thing
in the world, and then Princess Lucia will be yours.”

"The Most Wonderful Thing in the World" by Vivian French & Angela Barrett

The next day, when Salvatore witnesses the warm embrace with which her parents greet Lucia, it hits him. Lucia is the most wonderful thing in the world. Or, more precisely, the love that her parents (and now Salvatore) feels for her.  Taking his love by the hand, Salvatore—who “doesn’t look anything like the others,” the queen notices—professes to the royal family, “Here is the most wonderful thing in the world.” The queen’s tickled response couldn’t be more genuine: “Oh!Oh! Oh, of course she is!”

Lucia took Salvatore’s other hand.
“Thank you,” she said, and she kissed him.

"The Most Wonderful Thing in the World" by Vivian French & Angela Barrett

Sound the wedding bells! Get out the tissues! Let’s all go straight to Italy! Yes, love can sometimes blind us (the king and queen initially failed to see that their daughter would make her own best choice), but it is also the Great Equalizer. It can transcend differences and deliver us into joy and peace and understanding beyond our wildest dreams. Love—between a parent and a child, between two lovers, between a ruler and her people, or in any of its other numerous forms—is the most wonderful thing in the world.

Now that’s the kind of Valentine’s Day I’d like my kids to celebrate.

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Review copy provided by Candlewick. Amazon.com affiliate links are provided mainly for ease and reference–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

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