When I became a parent, the thing I most looked forward to was getting to develop a reader. Before my daughter could even sit up I would lie on the floor with her and read to her. Her eyes would brighten and she’d kick her legs so hard that she’d pant.
Classics like Go Dog Go and Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb made her squeal with delight. I spent hours reading to her at an age (2 months) when most people assume “it’s not important yet” to read to a child. None of this was in the name of hothousing her into Harvard. I just wanted her to love books.
At the library I stumbled across a cool genre of children’s books that I didn’t know existed: stories without words. Although many books for babies are just pictures, these books went beyond decorative into outright surrealism. They told fanciful stories that were more fun, sophisticated, challenging and interesting to explore than the majority of children’s books.
Part of what makes these books compelling is that, without words to tell you what’s going on, you and your child get to flesh out the story together and imagine alternative story lines. Engaging with books this way helps a child build important interpretation skills. Many of these wordless stories also expose children to sophisticated time shifts and alternative worlds. A skillful artist and storyteller can create a wordless story so multifaceted that a child will return to it again and again.
Here is a list of some of our favorite wordless stories, all of which we found at the library.
This French author is a genius. These books are our all-time favorites. A small dog named Polo lives in a tree house in the middle of the sea and has various adventures featuring a wide cast of characters, not all of whom have his best interests in mind. Polo is sometimes annoyed by interruptions to his routine, but usually ends up happy in the end.
Faller’s sense of humor is highly engaging and fun. The plots are surreal, with unexpected twists. Polo himself is a bit of a mystery. He has a magic backpack that produces things he needs in a pinch, but he himself does not appear to wield any magic.
The artwork and stories are sweet, but Polo does face mild peril, which adds some intriguing dramatic tension. (Note that if you’re ever in France, you can pick up some titles that are not yet released in the United States.)
These two books are non-sequential, but Wonder Bear himself shows up in both books. From what I can gather, he’s a polar bear who solves problems. In Bunny Days, Wonder Bear helps bunnies get their tails back after an unfortunate hedge trimming incident. He then goes on to rescue them from a wayward vacuum.
In Wonder Bear he acts as a tour guide for a brother and sister on a fantastic journey through time and space in a flower-filled dreamscape.
The artwork in both books is fantastic and borderline psychedelic. Author Nyeu does a great job of creating an immersive alternative world that is deceptively simple and very sweet. Bunny Days was so good that it’s one of the few children’s hardcovers we bought. For well over a year rarely did a day go by when we didn’t read it.
(Full disclosure: Bunny Days has some minimal writing, but it’s basically just titles for the images.)
These books are good for slightly older preschoolers.
Filled with wit and sight gags, these books are a mixture of “what’s different” and Where’s Waldo? with some “whodunit” added in for good measure. The story progresses quite a bit with each turn of the page and the level of detail for each thread of the story is extraordinary. It’s fun to turn back and forth between the pages and figure out where the characters are and what they are doing. Little kids are caught doing naughty things, love affairs bloom and the whole thing is wrapped up in a mysterious cake robbery. All told, these books provide a fun, intriguing and slightly irreverent look at a picnic gone wrong.
Wiesner has won multiple Caldecott Medals for his books and it’s easy to see why. His artistry is astonishing.
In Flotsam, a boy at a beach encounters sea creatures and explores the detritus that has washed up on the shore (hence the title). Part of what makes this book so compelling is Wiesner’s unique way of drawing the reader into the story through changes in perspective. The point of view changes between characters (for example we get a crab’s eye view of the boy’s face) and the perspective zooms in and out as the reader moves from panel to panel. Most children’s books are plot-driven and the illustrations are just used to show a scene from the book, usually from a single perspective. But Wiesner’s books give a young child’s mind a workout by presenting the story from different visual points of view.
Also check out Wiesner’s The Three Pigs, which does have text, but is a must-see due to its mind-blowing illustrations. The three little pigs escape from their fairy tale and run through other books.
Like David Wiesner, Lehman tells a lot of stories through intriguing zoom in/out perspective shifts.
In The Red Book a young girl picks up a red book on the street in a large city and finds a boy on a tropical island inside the book. Through a series of events she is transported to meet the boy. The book falls from her hands at one point, leaving you and your child to imagine the next journey. Her other wordless books (Museum Trip, The Secret Box) are also wonderful, though geared towards slightly older children.
Next: Zoom, by Istvan Banyai
In Zoom, Banyai uses a zooming perspective in the illustrations to take the reader farther and farther away from the first object, which in this case is a rooster. Or is it?
Each new page provides a bit of a surprise as it shows you a zoomed-out view of the prior page. What you think you’re looking at is usually something quite different when viewed from this new perspective.
This stacking effect creates a bit of a brainteaser. There’s no real “story” to speak of, but it’s fun to try and figure out what is happening from one page to the next and how it’s all related. His book The Other Side is even more challenging and surreal.
Hogwash and Oops, by Arthur Geisert
In Hogwash, Geisert creates an immersive world populated by animals doing surreal things. In this case, it’s pigs. They leave their village and go down to a valley to wash a huge group of piglets using a makeshift “factory” made up of a series of machines and conveyor belts. The machines are hilariously inventive and the piglets submit to all this with good humor.
In Oops, a family of pigs sits down to breakfast in their house on a hill. They spill some milk, which drips down through the floorboards and sets off a disastrous Rube Goldberg-style chain of events. Both books are filled with funny touches and interesting gizmos.
We had a lot of fun figuring out how things work in the pig-washing factory in Hogwash and identifying each stage in the chain reaction set off in Oops.
Starting with The Chicken Thief, this series of charming books involves a simple plot: A chicken is kidnapped by a fox who falls in love with her; the rooster who also loves her tries to get her back.
The illustrations are very cartoon-like and packed with lots of zany action involving boats and running around islands and forests. Both sides enlist other animal friends to help wage the battle, and the poor rooster spirals through a wide range of emotions. These books are pleasantly reminiscent of silent movies and gave my (then) toddler daughter and I an opportunity to discuss concepts like lost love, revenge and jealousy.
Next: Wave, by Suzy Lee
In this wonderful book, which is great for younger preschoolers, a little girl goes to a beach and gets into a tussle with a wave. Beautifully illustrated and full of motion, Wave perfectly captures the feeling of being young at the beach and interacting with waves, which are scary and exhilarating at the same time.
My daughter looked at this book repeatedly and loved to add swooshing wave sounds to the story. This is one of the earliest books that she sought out to read by herself, which is a good indicator of how engaging it is.
Elise Gruber is a freelance writer and project manager who pays a lot of late fees at the library. She believes strongly in reading to children early and often and has promised to continue reading to her daughter for the rest of her natural-born days.