Picture Books as Performance

May 19, 2022 § Leave a comment

I recently tuned into the podcast Picturebooking, where Mac Barnett was being interviewed by host Nick Patton. It was fortuitous timing, because earlier that day I had told a friend that I thought Barnett’s newest picture book, The Great Zapfino (Ages 3-6), an almost wordless story in partnership with the great Marla Frazee, was one of the most brilliant and exciting wordless picture books I’d ever seen. But I couldn’t entirely put my finger on why.

Wordless picture books are a hard sell for parents. I could sit here all day and list the ways they build early literacy skills in young children (and I once did, here, with our family’s favorite wordless trilogy), but when it comes down to it, they just don’t seem like they’re going to be much fun to read aloud.

That’s because there’s a performative element to picture books that feels like it’s getting lost in the absence of words. On the podcast, Mac Barnett talks about how the story of a picture book cannot exist independent of its delivery. And that delivery changes every single time. No parent or teacher will read aloud the same book in quite the same way, with the same cadence or expression or energy, not to mention with the same participatory feedback from their young audience, which means that once an author unleashes a picture book into the world, it becomes a living, breathing entity. It becomes performance art.

When we adult readers are looking to entertain our listeners, we understandably look to text, both to build a story’s arc and to provide us with the dialogue to exercise our comedic or dramatic voices. In the absence of text, when we must look to pictorial representation for meaning, we’re unsure how to translate what we’re seeing aloud. We feel a bit adrift. We forget that what feels awkward to us is actually part of the charm of wordless books for children: they have to work a bit harder, participate in the read-aloud experience a bit more, but the payoff of discovery is that much sweeter.

Creating a picture book guaranteed to hold a listener’s attention no matter how it’s read is no easy feat, but Mac Barnett has proved himself infallible. Everything he touches has slam-dunk crowd appeal. (Spoiler alert: I’ve already chosen his forthcoming fall release, The Three Billy Goats Gruff, for this year’s Holiday Gift Guide!) In the case of The Great Zapfino, Mac Barnett has done something highly effective. He front loads the book with two pages of text—the words of a circus ringmaster, introducing his biggest act—before letting Marla Frazee’s spectacular illustrations tell the rest of the story. This means that right out of the gate, he satisfies our desire for a fun, over-the-top character voice, then uses that voice to invest the listener in what’s to come. Right out of the gate, we’re poised for the performance in these pages.

But The Great Zapfino isn’t just a picture book that performs well. It’s also a story about a literal performance. And not the one we think we’re getting from the book’s opening pages, either. Because the Great Zapfino is about to blow it. He’s about to throw away his big shot in a public spectacle of embarrassment. But he’s also about to rewrite his own script, cast himself in a different role, and give himself the time and permission for second chances. His performance, we come to realize, is the performance of life, and we are lucky to be along for the ride.

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

September 22, 2016 § 2 Comments

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). « Read the rest of this entry »

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