Books Without Words

I was very struck by the number of people on the last post who noted that they were driven especially crazy by books without words.

When Diana was a teeny tiny baby, these were books I especially prized because I felt they didn't call for anything from me, once she could turn the pages.

But the strange thing about books without words was that I always, somehow, ended up putting my own words in. Even in that most excellent section in Where the Wild Things Are where the wild rumpus starts, I was always compelled to put words to it, words that I wanted
to leave out but somehow couldn't. It wasn't that I pretended there were words there, it was all in the role of audience with my child, just little narrations: "Oh, look! They're
swinging from trees. They're parading around with Max on their
shoulders" sort of thing. Why did I do it? I can't rightly say.

It was the same with Goodnight, Gorilla.

maybe the hardest and least adult thing in the world to just read
through one of those books by looking—and not say a word. I've never been able to do it.  And whatever strange compulsion made me put words in at all made me use those very same words every freaking time I "read" that story.

I wonder if this is in any way related to the other thing about books without words: that children seem to have a really passionate and intense feeling for these books. Does the lack of words makes the pacing dreamy and otherworldly—and thus, far more in keeping with the pacing and reality of childhood than books with normal stories made in words do? I always wonder what it would have been like if I could have left the words behind. Would the child put the pictures together into a story? Or would they create some whole other narrative—or non-narrative—and do something else?

Diana did look through those picture books on her own, but of course it wasn't because of any genius insight of ours. Instead it's just that she liked then, and likes still, to look through books and get caught up in her own world. And even if they drive people crazy, I still have a soft spot for the completely wordless book.Even if I can't quite live up to its promise.

Here are some of our strange old favorites, either completely wordless or nearly so:

This is the story of an ignored older sister; it is excellent.


This one everyone knows, but I really like it.


I can't think of any more this second—but maybe you can?

20 thoughts on “Books Without Words

  1. One that has a few words on a couple pages but is still lots of fun is “Tuesday” by David Wiesner. And there are lots of Carl books too. Also “A Boy, A Dog and A Frog” by Maurice Sendak.
    I have the same problem of putting words to the pages. I think my reasoning is that maybe I’m helping my daughter to see all the interesting details that otherwise she might miss. But I’m probably just putting my spin on it instead of letting her see it her own way.
    I truly love your blog. Thanks so much!


  2. I gained a new appreciation for wordless picture books last year when I read dozens of PBs that had been mentioned as Caldecott possibilities. Many of them did not have stellar prose. It was a relief to come across those without words at all.
    Last year my three-year-old niece said she wanted “strawberries” for Christmas, so I bought her two books with strawberries in them. One was Molly Bang’s The Grey Lady and the Strawberry Snatcher, a wordless book that I thought was just astonishing and read through at least three times in a row.
    I also really, really liked last year’s Wonder Bear by Tao Nguyen.


  3. Not just “Tuesday”, but if you haven’t seen them you must immediately go check out “Sector 7” and “Flotsam”, by David Wiesner. Mind-blowing, good for hours and hours of word-free reading.


  4. We’ve loved a lot of wordless (or nearly so) books, some of them not even meant for particularly young people. One of our favorites is “Robot Dreams” by Sara Varon. I have a right-brained “late” reader and graphic novels, with and without words, have been *huge* for my daughter, as she was/is able to read them solo when a more text-laden novel that interests her is still a little too tough to read herself.


  5. I completely second Sector 7 and Flotsam. Great, great books and a ton of fun.
    There is a series, and I can’t remember what it’s called right now, but it’s “written” in comic strip form, but has no words. Brynna used to love “reading” these to me, because she could make up her own words, but the lots of little pictures made it easy to follow a basic story structure.


  6. I also love wordless picture books. All of the ones that have already been mentioned are the ones that come to mind at the moment. I think that it is great modeling for an adult to put words to the pictures, because isn’t that what kids do when they cannot yet read words? They tell their own story. When adults do this with their children, it shows them that this is a “normal” way to read and helps them feel more like true readers.
    Oh, I just thought of another one! It is for older kids. Have you ever seen The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg? This is a collection of drawings that are titled, but have no story. It is great to try and tell a story to match the drawing.


  7. Rain by Peter Spier is always popular in my household. He also has a Noah’s Ark book with just a poem at the end, I believe. Both of these have so much going on in them that when my kids read them, there is almost a reverent silence in the house as each makes his/her own version of the story drawn. P.S. I love this blog!


  8. We love a book called You Can’t Take a Balloon into the Metropolitan Museum. A girl has to leave her balloon outside the museum and it gets away, having adventures that are strikingly like the art she’s seeing inside the museum. It’s beautiful, artistic, and funny. There’s a second book about the Museum of Fine Arts too.


  9. Oh heavens, what does it say about me that it never even OCCURRED to me that I could ‘read’ the books with my daughter and not add my own commentary or clumsily try to tell the story. Yikes.


  10. Wow, I had no idea that there were so many wordless books! “A Boy A Dog And A Frog” was one of my favorites as a child and is now a favorite around here. I felt like I was “reading” a really complicated book (because the pictures were so well drawn, not the bolder but more crude drawings that accompanied books written for the beginning readers) before I was reading extremely well, a very grown up feeling.
    And truly, it has never occurred to me once simply to look silently through the book. I have always tried to bring out their version of the story (what’s he doing now? how do you think he feels? what’s going to happen next?) but it’s hard enough for me to be silent under any circumstances, and when I’m handed a book without pre-prepared words? Well, that just means my chance to fill them in! Perhaps people who are more visual than verbal would have a different reaction, but my world has always been about words in one form or another, even if I have to supply them myself!


  11. I’ve been sitting here for 30 minutes searching the internet for these books – and thankfully, my husband remembered the author’s name. Sunshine, by Jan Ormerod, and also Moonlight. These books have no words, but are so beautifully illustrated, and tell their stories so delightfully, that my daughters loved them for years.


  12. My 5 y.o. daughter has “read” all of Andy Runton’s Owly books. There’s a word here or there, and punctuation, but they are nearly wordless short stories, graphic novel(la) style.
    She was IMMENSELY proud to be reading one of her books, without any help, as her big sister tore through various Oz books all summer. In fact, I can’t even tell you what Owly and his worm friends did in those books because I was BANNED from even looking at them. They were hers and hers alone.
    I think what distinguishes Owly from, say Goodnight, Gorilla or Carl books, is its length. T. felt like she was reading a chapter book, not a “little kid” book.


  13. I loved “reading” Goodnight Gorilla to my children and my son, especially, remembered the narration I provided (including sound effects). I think that wordless picture books also help cement this feeling from your child that you, the parent, can help explain what’s going on, or they can.


  14. I found this site searching for more wordless picture book titles to add to my library. I’m a mom and a reading teacher and I just wanted to say that wordless picture books are wonderful precisely because they encourage you to talk so much more than books with words. Some people read books without stopping to talk and comment and question, modeling to their children all of the things that good readers do when they are understanding a text at any age. I highly recommend a lot of talking while reading to and with kids!


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