Jim Trelease, author of The Read-Aloud Handbook, states that, “Wordless books are a wonderful introduction to books and plotting for children who can’t read yet. Since we become picture-literate before we become print-literate, they can “read” the book if someone helps blaze a trail through the narrative initially. After hearing the book and seeing how the clues for the narrative are all in the pictures/illustrations, the child can pretend to read, though in fact they are taking real steps in reading…” (qtd. in Levin). They can convey the plot line to younger students or siblings while they practice essential pre-reading skills. Students can experience success with a book, even when they do not have solid text reading skills.
Wordless books are not just for Kindergarten or Preschool students. Strong visual literacy skills not only help students learn to read text, but also ‘read’ other visual presentations of information in their lives. Pictures, video and infographics depend on their readers to have strong visual literacy in order to tell the full story (easter eggs anyone?). Wordless books can be used as opportunities to discuss current events and difficult issues. In Shaun Tan’s Arrival, one is drawn into the experience of being an immigrant, where everything is so different and strange when you arrive into a new country. How else could we experience that without being an immigrant ourselves except by going through it with the main character? The 48 pages in Unspoken: A Story from the Underground Railroad by Henry Cole would take more pages than that to unpack all that occurs. What should determine the right thing to do, my conscience or my culture? Why? By Nikolai Popov should be required reading for anyone who studies war or has their fingers near the button.
Depending upon the time you have for library instruction, there are many ways to use wordless books. When using them for story time, it’s important that you ask the students questions, like ‘what is happening in this picture? What makes you think that? What do you think happens next?’ Unlike some other picture books, wordless books are works of collaboration between the illustrator, you and the readers. For station work or for group work, you might print several pages of a wordless book and have the student draw either what came before or what comes next after the series of pictures. Using comic strip graphic organizers, students can create their own ‘wordless book’ with guide words on top like ‘beginning, middle and end’. Some of the aforementioned wordless books with older students can be used as catalysts for discussions or writings about current events. Asking students to create alternative endings or using images to express their own opinions about subjects may make those students that aren’t as successful within the written realm to express themselves fully with images and pictures.
With so many upsides, I’m sure you’ll be adding wordless books to your library routine soon. Following are short descriptions of some of my favorite (and the Caldecott committee as well!) wordless stories. Enjoy!
Tuesday, Flotsam, Section 7, Mr. Wuffles ,etc. - David Wiesner. With three Caldecotts and two honors to his name, Wiesner is the king of illustrators. I LOVE to use Tuesday with K-1’s because the humor and whimsy is side-splitting. After the spectacle of flying frogs on one Tuesday, when the students see the last page of the next flying animal, I always hear several go, Ohhhh, Noooo! And giggle. What is better than that? One could do an entire author/illustrator unit of several weeks just using his work.
Good Night, Gorilla - Peggy Rathman. I buy this board book for anyone in my acquaintance that is having a baby. The look on all of the animals faces when they are discovered in the bedroom will make any adult laugh out loud. Teamed with Rathman’s 10 Minutes to Bedtime, you have a themed story time that every child will relate with. If you use Peggy Rathman’s website’s http://www.hamstertours.com/ in a station or with the group, your students will think you too are powered by hamsters!
The Lion and the Mouse - Jerry Pinkney. This 2010 Caldecott winner can only be described as luscious. The story of how even the small can help the mighty resonates with young children. Don’t forget his equally incredible The Tortoise & the Hare.
A Ball for Daisy - Chris Rascha. Students can relate to Daisy who is so happy with her favorite toy, a ball and is devastated when that ball is destroyed by another dog. Conversations about how to be a good friend and why it’s okay to be sad sometimes flow naturally from this story.
A Wolf in the Snow - Matthew Cordell. This year’s Caldecott Winner displays unlikely friends helping each other when they find themselves lost from their pack (or people). Notice how many of these wordless books are Caldecott winners or honor books? Hmmmm.
The Farmer and the Clown - Marla Frazee. A little clown is separated from his clown family. A grumpy old farmer takes him in. Just as the two become firm friends, the clown family returns. For some reason, this one makes me tear up. Humans being beautiful to each other does that.
The Knight and the Dragon - Tomie dePaola (and his Pancakes for Breakfast)! The knight has a problem. The dragon has a problem. Who can help solve their problems? Well, let’s try the librarian princess. Yes, this one has some words (Pancakes does not). But together, they are a great little unit on how to solve problems - and one features a librarian. Seriously, it doesn’t get better than that!
Unspoken - Henry Cole. A young girl discovers a runaway slave in her barn. What should she do? Her culture says one thing. What does her heart say? Especially useful for starting discussions about how to do what’s right when others (friends) may be pulling you to do what’s wrong.
A Stone for Sascha - Aaron Becker. Another priceless work by Aaron Becker, author/illustrator of the wordless trilogy Journey, which also won a Caldecott Honor. This 2018 picture book tells the story of a young girl whose dog has died, and she has to experience her vacation without her for the first time. A stone which arrived from space and has seen dinosaurs and civilizations come and go gives her comfort. More suitable for older students.
Vacation - Blexbolex. You are having a lovely holiday with your grandfather and then he brings back from the train station… an elephant? How would you react? How would anyone reasonable react to an elephant spoiling the fun.
The Arrival - Shaun Tan. A man’s country is overwhelmed by monsters. He must leave his family and everything he knows behind to try and make a new home for his family in a country where he can’t communicate and all is strange. Using fantastical creatures and symbols to convey the disorientation one experiences in a new place is genius.
Why? - Nikolai Popov. A frog sits on a rock, enjoying the day and minding his own business. Suddenly, he is attacked by a mouse wielding an umbrella. Soon a minor scuffle becomes an all-out war. Why? Be prepared for discussions of big issues.