Monday, May 2, 2016

Talking About Wordless Picture Books

It may have been a panel about wordless picture books, but the participants -- including three-time Caldecott Medalist David Wiesner and Caldecott Honor illustrator Marla Frazee -- had plenty to say about the topic.

The venue was the annual picture book panel organized by Mary Alice Garber, the chief children's book buyer at Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C.  This year's topic was "No Words Needed: The Value and Many Uses of Wordless Picture Books," and the panelists, in addition to Wiesner and Frazee, included Henry Cole, Raul Colon, and Stephen Savage. The moderator was Allyn Johnston, publisher of Beach Lane Books, a Simon & Schuster imprint.

L-R: David Wiesner, Henry Cole, Marla Frazee, Raul Colon & Stephen Savage. (Photos by Bruce Guthrie)

Johnston started things off with a friendly, yet pointed broadside, candidly noting that "I'm intimidated by wordless picture books. And maybe I don't even like them -- they make me work too hard to figure out what's going on."

Beach Lane publisher Allyn Johnston
This drew a laugh from the audience, but Johnston's comments were ones that many librarians frequently hear from parents and teachers who wonder about the value of wordless picture books. After all, aren't words much more important than pictures? And why do kids need pictures after they learn to read?

 "For me, the pictures -- I read them like I read words," responded Wiesner, who has won two Caldecott Medals with wordless (or mostly wordless) books, Tuesday and Flotsam. (His third Caldecott Medal was for The Three Pigs). "I have the same reaction to reading words that you have to reading pictures," he told Johnston.

David Wiesner

Frazee, who eschewed words in her brilliant picture book The Farmer and the Clown, added that "it's such an honor to draw pictures for children because they are such expert readers of pictures. Whether it's a wordless picture book or not, children are going to look at the pictures in a way that surpasses what grown-ups can do."

Marla Frazee

Any librarian can tell you that's true, particularly since pre-readers are especially attuned at looking at the pictures as their parent, teacher or other grown-up reads the words to them. And being able to "read" pictures -- being "visually literate" -- actually is now a hugely important skill in today's screen-filled world where it is demonstrated daily that "a picture is worth 1,000 words."

Librarians also can tell you that kids have rebelled, in a big way, against adult efforts to take away the pictures once kids learn to read. Just look at the astounding popularity of author/illustrator Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid books and other "hybrid" books, which feature an illustration on each page along with text. Or how about the skyrocketing popularity of graphic novels for kids? While both hybrid books and many graphic novels have both words and pictures, the illustrations are definitely as important as the text in these books, and that's clearly how young readers like it.

Yet most adults still don't seem to place much emphasis on pictures. The result? "I find it astonishing and disturbing that visual literacy just dissipates as kids grow up," Wiesner lamented. "When kids learn to read, they lose the ability to look at pictures," Frazee agreed.

Raul Colon
So how does an author/illustrator know when it's best to leave out the words? Sometimes, it's the editor who makes the suggestion, as Colon noted about his one wordless picture book, Draw!. "In my case, I had words in the book, and my editor took them out.... After we decided on that, I had to be sure that the pictures told more than one story." So Colon put in lots of details that aren't immediately apparent. "If you look at the pictures and go through the book really fast, you'll see the story, but you won't see all of the other things," he said.

Henry Cole
Cole, a former teacher, says he believes that wordless books are a great way to spark kids' own storytelling skills. For example, in Unspoken, his wordless book about the Underground Railroad, "kids can actually imagine for themselves what words could be there." And in his newest book, the wordless Spot, the Cat, readers can follow the main story as they look for the cat and his owner, and then go back and find all kinds of other stories by carefully looking at -- reading! -- the many details that Cole has included in his book.

Stephen Savage
Savage, meanwhile, noted that when he published Where's Walrus?, "I wasn't thinking of it being a teaching tool at all. What I liked about the fact that it was wordless was that it broke down the wall. Wordless picture books throw it back at the audience," and make it a more interactive experience. Savage said that he also loves the way that wordless books work with both kids and adults. "When I read my books.... I feel that a variety of ages can laugh at the same joke."

Still, it remains a challenge to convince many adults about the value of wordless picture books, the panelists agreed. Wiesner noted that he's been in bookstores where adults will page through one of his wordless books, remark on the lack of text, and move on to a more word-heavy book. Even worse, some adults will bring their own odd interpretations to wordless books, as was the case with The Farmer and Clown, where some adults felt the book showed the elderly farmer potentially abusing the young clown.

Johnston, who edited the book, clearly is still rankled by such "stranger danger" interpretations, which she called "ridiculous." Frazee agreed that these were "offensive" ideas, adding: "I thought a lot about the differences that adults bring to picture books. And I think that adults read into pictures while kids read pictures."

Then Frazee offered a lovely example of the power of wordless picture books, noting that she had received an email from a grandmother who had read The Farmer and the Clown with her three-year-old granddaughter, who had suffered the loss of several family members. In seeing how the farmer and the clown give each other their distinctive hats at the end, the little girl said: "Now they will remember each other forever." In her email to Frazee, the grandmother noted that The Farmer and the Clown "gave us an opportunity to talk about what it means to lose people and how we can remember them."

End Notes: Thanks to Mary Alice Garber and other Politics & Prose staff for putting together yet another thought-provoking panel on picture books. And thanks to Bruce Guthrie for taking such great photos.


  1. Amazing panel of experts, great discussion. Thanks!

  2. Thanks, Tom, for your comment! It was truly a fascinating panel about an important subject.