February 17, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

How Wordless Picture Books Empower Children | SLJ Day of Dialog 2014


Wordless picture book creators Bob Staake, Raul Colon, Aaron Becker, and Molly Idle.

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.


Bob Staake

“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.

Aaron Becker

Aaron Becker

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.


An image from Becker’s wordless adventure “Quest.”

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.”


Raul Colon

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.

flora falls

Flora falls down.

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.


Sarah Bayliss About Sarah Bayliss

Sarah Bayliss (sbayliss@mediasourceinc.com, @shbayliss) is associate editor, news and features, at School Library Journal.

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  1. Oh how I wish I could have come along to this day of dialogue, would have been absolutely fascinating to hear from these author/illustrators about their wordless picturebooks!

  2. I loved this article with it’s perspective on wordless picture books. Having just published my own wordless book, I loved reading of Raul Colons` story of how his book initially had text, but then as he progressed in the process, the words became superfluous. This is very similar to my experience to creating Pandamorphosis.
    David Wiesner’s books are also favorites of mine, and each time I read them, I find more that I missed on previous readings.
    thank you again.

  3. Geraldine says:

    On the spur of the moment, I used FLOTSAM by David Wiesner during a class visit at my public library. It had just won the Caldecott and instead of merely showing it, I started turning pages. The 2nd-grade class was quite engaged with the story. We had to settle them down afterwards they were so excited . It was an eye-opener for me.

  4. Wordless picture books are also FABULOUS for PARENTS, particularly new parents and others who are not used to reading with children. Until adults have some practice to see how much fun reading with their kids can be, they can fall into trying to be what they conceive of as “reading teachers,” which as often as not (unlike REAL reading teachers) creates closed-ended questions and no real conversation. On the other hand, EVERYBODY can talk about pictures and with a little guidance most parents (and all children) enjoy REAL conversation around stories and making connections between these lovely books and their own lives.

  5. Visual design is story-telling is really an under-developed art form that really hasn’t been harvested to it’s fullest potential. Being a fan of silent movies, the attention to lighting, set design, and actor blocking was virtually abandoned with the advent of talking pictures, simply because it’s much easier to express what one thinks by telling people, than by conveying it with motion, pictures and sound. Lighting, color, depth of field and camera angle all project specific feelings, emotions and understanding which is exactly the same with drawing and pictures. At the same time, I also appreciate the ambiguity and discussion that’s created by a series of static pictures presented in books. They’re a lot to be explored.