Wordless picture books allow children to project their own imaginations upon a story and “own it,” as author/illustrator Bob Staake, along with Aaron Becker, Raúl Colón, and Molly Idle discussed during a lively panel at School Library Journal’s 2014 Day of Dialog.
“It’s a marvelous thing to tell a story without words,” said Staake, creator of Bluebird (Schwartz & Wade, 2013). “It says, ‘you matter.’”
Because these stories are conveyed visually, children are free to interpret as they wish and project their own emotions, the panelists said. They turn traditional storytelling, with an adult leading a child through a tale, on its head.
What’s the best way for an adult to “read” a wordless book to kids? Ask “starter questions” about what the children are seeing, suggested Idle, author of Flora and the Flamingo (Chronicle, 2013). But no “leading questions.”
“Pull back. It’s the child telling the story,” said Staacke.
The panel was moderated by Cathryn Mercier, director of the Center for the Study of Children’s Literature at Simmons College.
Bluebird, with a primarily grey and blue palette and stylized, geometric illustrations, follows a lonely city boy home from school as he befriends a cheerful bird. “When you distill a book to pictures, it’s about empowerment,” he said. “The child becomes “a causal part of the story,” and “it doesn’t get any better.”
Evidently, members of the 2014 Caldecott Committee agreed, since they selected Flora and the Flamingo and Becker’s wordless Journey (Candlewick, 2013) as honor titles. A third Caldecott honor book, David Weisner’s Mr. Wuffles! (Clarion/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013), is nearly wordless as well.
Becker said that a background in film led him to create visual frames while pitching Journey to publishers. During this process, he soon realized that “you don’t need” words.
He described his storytelling techniques while creating Journey’s sequel, Quest (Candlewick, August 2014). This adventure involves two children who enter a fantastical kingdom after a mysterious emperor appears, hands then a map, and beckons them through a door under a park archway.
In the course of a single picture, Becker strives to “communicate complex action, emotion, and resolution all at once,” he said, while he projected a picture from Quest showing the children studying the map. In the background, the emperor looks down at them from a bridge, though they do not see him. Elsewhere, a fire has broken out.
In Quest’s multilayered scenes, “I give the characters neutral expressions so that the reader can decide how frightened, excited, or happy they should be,” said Becker. “It is up to the reader to fill in as much danger as they want to suggest.” Meanwhile, a purple bird accompanying the children throughout “knows where the trilogy is headed.”
Colón’s gently illustrated Draw! (Simon & Schuster, 2014) opens with a picture of a boy in bed reading a large book titled Africa. He starts drawing animal pictures on a large sketchpad, which leads to a journey to Africa, where he sets up his easel to visually capture zebras, an elephant, a group of apes, and a charging rhinoceros.
Though Draw! Initially had words, Colon’s editor said, “‘This works so well visually. The pictures are telling the story.’”
Speaking of his own life, Colon told the audience that “chronic asthma kept me away from school” when he was young. During those many days at home, he drew pictures, taking inspiration from comic books and Norman Rockwell illustrations, among other limited sources. “Thank God there was no Xbox back then,” Colón said, or he might not have become an artist.
Those memories shaped Draw!’s main character, whom Colón had named “Leonardo” when the book still had words. An asthma inhaler is visible by the bedside in the second picture, and a partly visible banner reading “Leonardo” appears in the last.
Young readers occasionally take issue with the level of detail in the boy’s picture of the charging rhinoceros, telling Colón, “you can’t draw that fast!”
The story is about “a little child enjoying a safari here in his head,” the author said.
Describing the old adage that a writer must “find your voice,” Idle told the audience, “My voice is to use no voice at all.” She relates Flora and the Flamingo through pictures—and “through dance,” as a little girl in the pink bathing suit mimics the dance-like movements of the bird she wants to befriend.
As Idle was conceiving the story, “there was a movie in my head that had a waltz beat to it,” she said. Idle also created illustrated flaps on most of the pages, featuring slight variations on the pictures underneath them. “All the flaps can be played with indefinitely,” she said.
“When I step in to narrate, I usually squash the experience,” Idle added. At one point, her protagonist falls down. Some young readers gasp, while others laugh at Flora’s misfortune. “It’s their choice to make,” Idle said. Similarly, Staake described having “a different dialogue with each child” who read Bluebird.
With wordless picture books, “You’re creating privacy for the child,” noted moderator Mercier. “It’s not to be mediated,” Becker agreed, while Idle said that the best thing an adult reader can do is to “leave the room.”
In Colón’s view, grown-ups have a single role. The “adult usually has the money to buy the book. Let the kid do the rest.”
Click here for more SLJ coverage of day of Dialog 2014.