How to Read a Picture Book without Words

Friday, January 30, 2009

Review Contributor: Tanya of

As an art school dropout and picture book aficionado, I am always drawn to a book's illustrations above all else. So, of course I would be drawn to a beautifully illustrated book that is all pictures. However, as a mother of a toddler and reader of story time three days a week, I need a book that will grab my audience, whether it's my son sitting in my lap or little faces looking up at me from the kid-sized benches in the Children's Department of the bookstore. Picture books without words draw the "reader" into a silent universe that is interpreted internally. To "read" a wordless picture book out loud requires that the "reader," using visual cues from the author/illustrator, create a narrative that will draw the listeners into the story and guide them through it externally. This is not always the easiest thing to do, even for someone who has read hundreds of picture books. But, I have found that, with a little thinking ahead and attention to detail, you can draw listeners in to the book and make the story last longer than the time it takes to flip through the pages.

David Wiesner is undoubtedly the master of visual storytelling, having won the Caldecott Medal for Tuesday, The Three Pigs and Flotsam, as well as the Caldecott Honor Award for Free Fall and Sector 7. But, before we dive into the wordless works of David Wiesner, I want to introduce you to Barbara Lehman, author/illustrator of The Red Book, winner of the Caldecott Honor in 2005, as well as Museum Trip, Rainstorm and Trainstop. Lehman and Wiesner both use watercolors to magnificently illustrate their books, but in very different ways. Lehman employs black outlines that give her pictures a two dimensional, almost comic book feel, making her books ideal for younger children. This isn't to say that her illustrations are simplistic. They are rich with details, crisp and colorful. And, most of all, inviting. Readers can't help but be drawn in to Lehman's books, especially The Red Book, which is about being drawn into a book, literally!

The plots of Lehman's books are often circular, ending where they began. The Red Book begins and ends with a nameless, red book stuck in a snow bank in a city somewhere. In between, the finder of the red book opens the pages to see another reader, on a sandy beach, who can see her, too. The story follows the city child as she devises a way to meet up with the other reader of the red book. Other than serving as a page turner, how can you "read" this book out loud, drawing younger children into the story and drawing out their imaginations? There are a few things you can do before you even open the book to begin engaging your audience. Whenever I read out loud, at home or at work, I like to say the name of the book and the name of the author and illustrator. After that, I usually open the book and start reading the story. However, with Lehman's books, which all have the main character on the cover, I like to tell my audience that we are going to read a book without words and I need help to tell this story. Then, I ask the audience to choose a name for the main character to get us started. Gender appropriate names, or even real names, don't matter. This is about what the audience sees and thinks. Reading a wordless book out loud requires a fine balance between audience involvement and verbal illustration enrichment on your part. As the "reader," take every opportunity to throw in adjectives when appropriate. Ask your audience to say how the main character is feeling, based on his/her expression. Ask your audience what they think the main character is thinking. Use your narrative to frame input from the audience and move the story along, page by page. As an individual reader, you know where your imagination goes as you read a wordless book to yourself. When "reading" out loud to an audience, you want to engage them and have them tell you where their imaginations are going as they look at the pictures in the book. All four of Lehman's books have main characters who are alone, and maybe lonely, but who find a connection with others, which reminds me a little bit of wordless picture books themselves - the pictures are out there on their own, waiting to connect with a reader who will give words their story.

David Wiesner's books take imagination and illustration to the next level. Some of Wiesner's artwork would not be out of place hanging in a museum next to the works of Rene Magritte and Salvador Dali. Wiesner's books are more detailed and his plots more complex than Barbara Lehman's, making for even more "reading" opportunities, but also requiring a slightly more advanced ability to understand the stories. Of course, these stories don't need to be understood or explained to be enjoyed. Simply looking at the beautiful, painterly illustrations with your audience and talking about the minutiae can make for an entertaining experience. Without words, readers (and listeners) are forced to look more closely at the illustrations, for clues and for narrative, than they would when reading a picture book with words. Words provide the cues for what to think about the story and how to look at the illustrations - without them, interpretation is up to you. Reading a book without pictures is also great practice for future museum visits and appreciation of art that hangs on the wall rather than between the pages of a book. Because of the detailed nature of Wiesner's illustrations, naming all the characters in his books might not be the best strategy, especially for the intricate Flotsam. However, this could be great fun with the more playful Sector 7 in which clouds have personalities and Tuesday in which frogs on flying lily pads have a nocturnal adventure.

However you choose to frame your narrative, calling attention to details and involving the listener is key to an engaged experience when reading a book without words. The way in which you call attention to and narrate the details determines the level of imagination and attention that your listeners will exhibit. I have always been the kind of reader who pores over illustrations and points out details. When my children were infants, this was a great strategy for engaging them in the story. While reading Goodnight Gorilla by Peggy Rathmann I would always point out the mouse with the banana, who is somewhere different on each page. Eventually, I could ask, "Where is the mouse?" and my audience would delight in showing me. Looking for details has its rewards as well, especially with author/illustrators like Peggy Rathmann, who hides characters from one book in the pages of another - see 10 Minutes till Bedtime, an almost wordless book with guest appearances by the stars of Caldecott Medal winner Officer Buckle and Gloria and the cast of Goodnight Gorilla. Readers of the works of David Shannon can have fun searching for his dog Fergus, a little, white terrier and star of his own book, Good Boy, Fergus, hidden within illustrations of all of his books. Shannon is very creative with his incorporation of Fergus into his art work. In one book, Fergus appears as a logo on a bicycle. In another, he is a bit of graffiti on a desk.

However you choose to approach the experience, reading a wordless book out loud is both challenging and rewarding. Getting good at it and appreciating it is a muscle that needs flexing and developing. The more you work it, the more it works for you, and the more you get out of the wordless books you read. The ultimate gift of reading the wordless picture book out loud is the creativity it inspires in the listener. Wordless picture books are springboards to stories yet to be told, germinating in your children's minds.
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