WHY PICTURE BOOKS MATTER: There Are No Words In This Book!



Wordless picturebooks an incredibly significant contribution to our literary canon. But how, you may ask? There are no words, and isn't literature about words? Well, yes and no. Of course words are important in getting ideas across, but if you look at what words are in their most basic sense, then you begin to get an understanding of the absolute urgency of pictures; of visual literacy.
The written word itself is made up of letters. Letters are simply a visual representation of a sound; they are symbols. A somewhat random symbol conceived by someone (or someones) a long time ago that have gained enough significance to stand the test of time and that we all (or most all) accept as a given thing. We know what letters are; we know what they mean. Then, to make a word you gather together these random symbols to create another random symbol; like dog or run or beautiful; that we have over time accepted as meaning what it means. These word symbols are put together to make collections of symbols we call sentences, then paragraphs, then books...it's quite a drawn out process when you think about it.  Random symbols with an agreed upon meaning creating more random symbols with an agreed upon meaning and so on and so forth until we have a written language.
Now stop for a minute. Have you ever thought that all of these random symbols, right back to letters are actually pictures? So, in essence, we are reading pictures.
Wordless picturebooks have a history of being discounted; dismissed as too easy and lacking in value when it comes to developing literacy and communication skills. But nothing could be farther from the truth. In reading wordless picturebooks, the child (or indeed adult) develops a keen eye. They learn not just to read the words, but to read the environment, situation and emotion portrayed in the story. They develop their own system of meaning and discernment; to make connections; to question what they see. In short, wordless picturebooks teach us to look deeply and with intention. From this, a very sophisticated level of literacy develops. Not only does reading appear, but interpretation and understanding.

Now, for the books (just a few.)
Owl Bat Bat Owl by Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick is a deceptively simple story of community and friendship; of getting along , letting go of preconceived notions and helping each other. And of curiosity. A beautiful, joyous book for even the youngest readers, the tale it tells is eloquent. Through the colour palette, the simple lines of action and the facial expressions, we read clearly what is happening and why. Though I have heard quite a few variations from children reading the book...and none of them were wrong.
Pictures can be far more eloquent at expressing moods and emotions than the written word.  By having no words to fall back on, we must look, really look at the pictures to discover what is going on.
In the exquisite book, La La La by Kate DiCamillo; illustrated by Jaime Kim, DiCamillo conceived the story of a little girl who stands alone and sings...but there is no response. She gathers her courage and steps boldly into the world. Calling to the trees, the pond, all the nature around looking for someone to sing back to her. The only "words" in the book are "la la la"; standing alone as symbols for her singing. The way they are worked into this silent, thought-filled story allow them to become, not so much text as part of the illustrations themselves, with the subtlety of change in colour palette, artfully displaying the emotion behind them as she meets her feelings of loneliness,  determination, frustration, uncertainty and ultimately joy and comfort along the way. With such a sensitive illustrator as Kim at the helm, it is an utterly perfect book.
Likewise when we look at Footpath Flowers by Jon Arno Lawson and Sydney Smith, we see both message and emotion woven into a  story of a little girl taking a walk through the city with her father. The little girl easily finds the flowers, the simple, colour-filled beauty that all the others they encounter, including her father, seem to miss. It is a treasure of a book that speaks of observing, really seeing, joy of discovery and the lovely relationship between parent and child by juxtaposing stark black and white ink paintings with the touch of vivid colour that grows throughout the book. There is an implication of how these things effect others, spill out into the greater world. And through pictures alone, we are compelled to come to our own conclusions as we reflect on the events we have just witnessed. It is a quietly reflective book and one filled with wonder.
Wordless books can tell us time-honoured tales, allowing us to see them with 'new eyes' and bring them into an exciting new level of understanding. The old Aesops' fable, The Lion and the Mouse was given a new lease by Jerry Pinkney,  retelling the tale in a way that is both moralistic and action-packed entertainment. The 'words' used in the story, like those in La La La, are simply sounds; those made by the animals and injecting a sense of action and movement into the pictures. The images of the majestic lion in a spot of bother and the humble mouse with the solution are easily relatable. Flowing, naturalistic representation will cement this story firmly into the memory and the consciousness of any reader, young or old.

Flotsam by David Weisner is an exquisite journey into the past and the imagination. The intricate, expressive illustrations offer us a day out beach-combing with a boy collecting flotsam...any old thing that may wash up along the shoreline. The adventure begins when he finds an old, barnacle-encrusted camera, complete with  film inside. He develops the film. When he looks carefully at the results, the boy uncovers an entire world of history, archaeology, imagination and the most unlikely occurrences...so much more than he would have dreamed possible, dating right back to the original owner of the camera. It is an amazing story, calling on us to expand both own imagination and literacy skills to another level, it fires the heart, mind and imagination, developing our sense of what is real and what is not. And, it really does call us to look closely.
And now we come to Journey, Quest and Return by Aaron Becker, a trilogy of wordless picturebooks that stands as an incredible testament to the power of illustration. This magnificent tour-de-force demonstrates the skill and sheer love of the story. With an ability to appeal to all ages, we are given the story of a lonely girl, left on her own to occupy her time. She begins by taking her red crayon and drawing a door on her bedroom wall. Through this door, she enters a world of adventure, beauty, danger and wonder where she discovers companionship and an ability to rely on her own wits and resourcefulness. Throughout the trilogy she travels to far-off lands, meets an evil emperor, develops survival skills, sees things she could only dream of and learns much about about navigating through life and towards an uncertain destiny. In the later books, when her disappearance, and the door, are discovered, others enter through as well and join her on her quest, including her father who finds they must learn how to rescue each other. The books are unbelievably beautiful. Intricate, refined and painterly, the illustrations pull on all the senses, with their luminous colours, exacting line-work and breathless sense of possibility. And something I discovered courtesy of one dear child close to me, you can 'read' the story differently every time.

Of course you can...and why wouldn't you? For that is the real gift of wordless picturebooks; the ability to tell them again and again in new and different ways, each time gaining new skill, vision and knowledge; putting a new and different piece of yourself into them time after time.

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