It may seem counterintuitive, but some of the hardest books to read aloud are those without words. Adults lucky enough to find themselves snuggling with children and picture books typically have printed text to carry them through the stories. But take away the words, and many adults don’t know what to do. They can narrate the visual story, but even the most verbally agile adult will be conscious that the words they vocalize on the spot can’t possibly meet the standard of carefully hewn writing. I remember, from my time as a librarian, that many adults would return wordless books to my children’s room and confess that they just couldn’t manage them.
But those adults who have the confidence to be quiet and absorb the pictures alongside the children in their laps are in for a transcendent experience. Patiently sitting and taking in the details can be its own reward, and the conversations that result as adult and child together navigate the pictures can yield magnificent surprises. Children who are not yet reading are accustomed to engaging totally with pictures, and what they notice and choose to talk about can help adults see what’s in front of them with completely new eyes.
It’s been a while, but I still remember the excitement of Paul Fleischman and Kevin Hawkes’ 2004 Sidewalk Circus, in which a child waiting at the bus stop sees all the activity of the big top in the everyday actions of those around her, and the erudite slapstick of Gregory Rogers’ The Boy, the Bear, the Baron, the Bard (also from 2004), which pitches an inadvertently time-traveling modern-day kid into 16th-century London for a farce that needs no knowledge of Shakespeare to enjoy.
And I really wish I had a kid of the right age with whom I could share some of the great wordless picture books we’ve seen recently. In Midnight Fair (Candlewick, Feb. 2), Mariachiara Di Giorgio’s pictures seem to glow in Gideon Sterer’s wordless tale of woodland animals who creep out to the carnival after human revelers have gone home. This is a book I would have adored as a kid; carnival rides and animals—what could be better? Midnight Fair is all giddy fun, but wordless books can convey complex storylines and profound emotion, too.
With ink and watercolor, Qin Leng meticulously interprets JonArno Lawson’s tale of chosen family in Over the Shop (Candlewick, Jan. 5). A child lives alone with an elder, probably a grandparent. They are White, but it’s hard to pin their gender down. When the grandparent reluctantly rents the shabby apartment over the small grocery store they own to a brown-skinned woman and an Asian man, it’s at the urging of the child. Readers will need to scrutinize visual plot points and examine the tiniest of details to begin to grasp the gender-identity conversation that plays out silently, but they’ll have no trouble understanding the warmth of the love felt by all by the end.
Thao Lam’s The Paper Boat (Owlkids Books, 2020) is a refugee story rich in symbolism. When a child and her mother flee their home in Vietnam, ants lead them to the shore. As they await passage, the mother folds a paper boat to distract her little one from fear and boredom. That boat becomes a vessel for the ants, and Lam focuses on the hardships the insects suffer—not all survive—rather than depict those endured by her human protagonists. It’s immersive and absorbing, offering lots of opportunity for discussion.
I can only imagine the conversations these and other fine wordless picture books might provoke. The adults who choose to share them with kids are so incredibly lucky.
Vicky Smith is a young readers’ editor.