Is a book still a book if it doesn’t have any words?

In this article Anna Ridley, development editor for children’s books at Tate Publishing and founder of the LOOK/BOOK Report, takes a close look at wordless picture books and discovers there’s more than one way to tell a story.


Follow the Firefly! / Run Rabbit Run! by Bernardo Carvalho

The term ‘wordless picture book’ seems to suggest there’s something lacking in this purely visual form of literature. Which there is. But when pictures are left to do the talking it’s incredible to discover how much they have to say. Referring to Perry Nodelman’s Words About Pictures, this article looks at recently published picture books that rely predominantly on images to construct a narrative and considers what roles words and pictures each play in illustrated books for children.

The Arrival by Shaun Tan. Hodder Children's Books.

In exploring the different ways words and pictures communicate meaning, Nodelman points out that ‘pictures tend to be diffuse, words explicit’. The advent of the modern picture book saw an unprecedented integration of words and pictures where the two became interdependent. Nodelman argues that for wordless picture books to be successful, they demand a previous knowledge of how stories operate and that to be able to build a narrative from images, readers need guidance on what it is they are looking for. This process of taking meaning from an image involves ‘imposing language upon it’, says Nodelman. When Salvatore Rubbino describes developing the book he made at art college A Walk in New York, into a picture book for children he refers to the words he added as being necessary to ‘anchor the pictures’. In Image Music Text, Barthes employs a similar term,  ‘anchorage’, in relation to photographs, explaining the need to constrain the meaning we take from an image. Although text may not be a feature of wordless picture books, they nonetheless rely on textual elements or the reader’s translation of image into word for the experience to be more than purely aesthetic.

Jim Curious by Matthias Picard

By comparing a book of singularly conceived artworks that have been bound together in a book with a wordless picture book, it becomes evident that to construct a narrative whose meaning is clear, its images need to function as a connected sequence. The most explicit use of sequenced images is seen in comic books and graphic novels where multiple frames show the step-by-step development of the story. Jim Curious by Matthias Picard, like Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman 35 years before it and more recently, Shaun Tan’s The Arrival, is a wordless picture book that uses this convention to great effect. However, Picard pushes readers one step further by removing some of his frames altogether so that when Jim is shown doing an underwater roly-poly readers must draw on their knowledge of this convention to understand Jim is shown in four stages of motion, rather than as four separate entities. Picard also uses consecutive frames for dramatic effect: three horizontal frames are used to slowly ‘zoom out’ on a scene of Jim swimming along a wrinkled rock face, revealing that Jim is in fact eye to eye with a large whale. Picard’s use of multiple images on a single page to communicate action, as well as atmosphere and emotion, contributes to a full and complex understanding of the nature of Jim’s silent journey.

The Apple and the Butterfly by Iela and Enzo Mari

Singular, full bleed images can also function as an action sequence when one page directly relates to the next. For this to work, each image needs to explicitly direct the reader’s attention forward in the story. A classic example is the acutely unbalanced compositions in Iela and Enzo Mari’s 1969 The Apple and the Butterfly that project the reader’s eyes off the page in a way that, as a stand alone piece of art, would lose our attention altogether. Using a highly graphic style of illustration, the Maris incrementally change one element of a picture at a time to trace the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly. They use their compositions not only to construct a narrative, but to conceptually support the circular nature of the story, leading the reader to the end of the book, around the back cover, onto the front and back into the book to experience yet another life cycle of a butterfly.

The Blue Bird by Sunkyung Cho

More recently, Sunkyung Cho’s exquisitely produced The Blue Bird uses composition both directionally and metaphorically to draw parallels and distinctions between a pig and a bird whose lives have become intertwined. The pig saves (or perhaps steals) the bird when it is still in its shell by taking it out of its natural habitat and integrating the bird into its own life. The rounded shapes of the pig’s spotted back and the bird’s spotted shell are the only apparent similarities they share. The composition of the illustrations indicate the imbalance in their relationship but without words, neither character’s voice is able to dominate and readers must contemplate the story from both perspectives. Judging by the compositions, the pig’s way of life on the ground limits the bird’s potential but equally, the bird’s desire towards flight is in opposition to the pig’s true nature. Purposefully open to interpretation, but ‘anchored’ enough in its visual narrative to persuade most readers towards some conclusion, The Blue Bird is a beautiful reflection on the complexities and ambiguities of a life shared with others.

The Conductor / Diapason by Laëtitia Devernay

Laëtitia Devernay’s The Conductor draws parallels between the structure of Western storytelling and that of Western classical music. A conductor plucks his baton from the forest and all is visually quiet as he poises his arms for movement. What follows is an incredibly evocative sequence of illustrations that use flocks of leaf-birds to convey the swelling sounds and emotional heights of what in my mind was a Beethoven symphony. The absence of words, helped by its minimal colours, is essential to the success of this book since it is in these gaps that the amorphous character of music is conjured up. First published in French as Diapason, the English title focuses our attention on the influence this central character will have on events, leaving room for the pleasant surprise that is the music drawn from our own memories.

The Lazy Friend by Ronan Badel

The title of Ronan Badel’s The Lazy Friend is even more significant since without its constraint, the meaning of the images could easily be misread. A sleeping sloth hangs contentedly from a branch in a rainforest. When foresters fell his tree, the sloth remains undisturbed and smiling. Thanks to the title, we know that the sloth is lazy, rather than dead, and that when the snake follows the sloth to what seems to be his demise, the snake plays the role of hapless hero rather than hostage taker – a comic reading that is assisted by the illustrations’ cartoon-like style. Badel uses the skinny landscape format of the book to narrow our vision on the story’s horizontal action and to heighten our sensitivity to the symbolic meaning implicit in the direction of the action. As the forester’s truck carries the sloth’s tree from right to left, left-to-right language readers will understand the sloth is being taken away from his home in the rainforest and away from the resolution of the story. When the direction abruptly changes just as the sloth’s tree, which has fallen into a river, starts heading towards a waterfall, impending doom is countered by the reassurance that at least the sloth is heading towards ‘home’.

Shadows by Suzy Lee

Also landscape in format, but with its spine down the longest edge of the book, is Suzy Lee’s Shadow which uses the gutter between pages to draw the line between reality and imagination. On the upper pages of the book, a little girl is pictured in sober charcoal in the secret confines of her family garage. She delights in affecting the shadows cast on the lower pages of the book by the bare light bulb above her. With the spine of the book acting like a mirror line, we start to see the black silhouettes of cardboard boxes take on suggestions of tropical foliage, while the vacuum cleaner adopts the role of baby elephant. The little girl lets her imagination run wild, and while she gets carried away she fails to notice the silhouette of a terrifying little wolf slip across the gutter, into reality. The diffuse nature of images make for the perfect medium here for expressing the fluid nature of imagination, while the interruption of the words ‘DINNER’s READY!’ on one of the final pages is a fantastic illustration of the way in which words throw things into sharp relief. At the end, when Lee uses a double page spread of black pages, they bear specific meaning where in another book they might have stood for nothing.

Et Pourqoi Pas Toi? by Madalena Matoso. Editions Notari.

Madalena Matoso cut the pages of her book Et Pourquoi Pas Toi? in half to allow the reader more control in determining the meaning of her wordless illustrations. The ambiguity of her simplified, graphic illustrations lets us view the people pictured as types, while highly readable symbols around them such as laptop computers, laboratory equipment and crockery serve as indicators of the activities they are engaged in. Details such earrings, bandanas, and distinctive hairstyles add hints of personality so that if they were so inclined, readers might use the lower half of the book to develop a narrative around that individual. By relinquishing control over how each image is read, Matoso succinctly conveys the idea that we can become whoever we choose.

Follow the Firefly! / Run, Rabbit, Run! by Bernardo Carvalho

Bernardo Carvalho’s dual-titled, wordless picture book Follow the Firefly! and Run, Rabbit, Run! uses its titles as well as clear visual cues to focus our attention on certain meaningful actions over and above other activity occurring within the same illustration. A light bulb-shaped firefly begins the book by asking, “Excuse me, have you seen a flashing light?” to which various animals, birds and humans respond with a simple pointing action. The firefly’s journey picks up speed as he travels from jungle to city and ends with an exaggerated exclamation as the firefly halts in front of the flashing light of his dreams: a traffic light. Over the page, the second title page shouts “Run, rabbit, run!” as we see a white rabbit escaping from a wire cage on the back of a truck. The cheeky-looking rabbit bounces back through the book, with a sharp-toothed dog in hot pursuit and despite having travelled through these images before, our eyes become glued to his story. Just when it seems the rabbit is done for, an imposing gorilla visually blocks his hunter’s way and the story takes an unexpectedly tender twist.

Follow the Firefly/ Run Rabbit Run by Bernardo Carvalho. Book Island.

Carvalho’s book is hugely entertaining but most significantly, it suggests an appropriate level of distrust for young readers to hold against the apparent fidelity of an image. As Berger articulates in Ways of Seeing, the Renaissance artist employing the convention of perspective supposed that a singular vision of the world was brought into focus in the eye of the beholder, whereas the advent of the camera suddenly revealed that multiple views are available to our eyes and it is up to the individual to actively and critically narrow in on the information presented. Carvalho uses both titles of the book to bring into focus the events he wishes to highlight, and by including both narratives, suggests that there might be many more to be found if we look more closely.

Welcome to Mamoko by Aleksandra Mizielińska and Daniel Mizieliński

Incorporating text to a greater degree are those picture books whose narrative-bearing illustrations are wordless but nonetheless rely on the equivalent of an artwork’s caption to help readers decode their latent meaning. Aleksandra Mizielińska and Daniel Mizieliński’s Welcome to Mamoko series, akin to Martin Handford’s Where’s Wally? for the generation before, tell the reader explicitly that there are stories to be found within the sequential images that follow. It is up to the reader to impart their interpretation on what’s happening, but only to a degree: characters such as Otto Trump, the elephant, are introduced at the beginning and readers are asked leading questions to send them on their story-finding way. The introduction also suggests there might be red herrings in the form of a stray pencil, a piece of cheese, and a skateboard. As Nodelman describes it, ‘Finding a story in a sequence of pictures with no help but our eyes is something like doing a puzzle. It cannot be done if we do not know what it is meant to be done, so we must first understand that there is indeed a problem to be solved’.

In the Garden by Emily Rand. Hato Press.

Nodelman suggests that without such accompanying words as the title or the caption, ‘the visual impact of pictures as sources of sensuous pleasure is more significant than any specific narrative information they might contain … if [no narrative] is actually provided, we tend to find one in our memories.’ More than any of the books discussed, the wordless picture books of Emily Rand, In the Garden and her forthcoming Under the Sea, impose the least amount of narrative constraint on its images. Produced in limited risograph-printed runs by Hato Press, In the Garden has no words printed on it except for the copyright line at the bottom of the back page. Behind the first hedge-like page, a single red feather floats enigmatically towards the ground. Behind the second, another. Topiary hedges are suggestive of a large bunny in profile and a smiling snowman. It is the format of the book, whose pages are cut to match the profile of the illustrated trees and plants, that Rand uses to entice readers to explore further and experience the aesthetic pleasure of the book as an object. Without strictly determining the meaning her readers will take from the book, Rand makes it essential for uninitiated readers of pictures to be accompanied in the reading process, acknowledging that the sharing of books is a key ingredient in what makes them sources of learning and pleasure.

The Lazy Friend by Ronan Badel

As we can see from the above examples, there are numerous techniques and approaches to communicating a story through pictures. To what degree this is successful depends on the extent to which the author has understood the exact nature of their medium, and the likelihood of readers being able to appropriately decode the messages they’ve embedded within, a key skill in the development of visual literacy. In her book Creating Meaning Through Literature and the Arts, literacy professor Claudia Cornett explains, ‘When we teach for visual literacy, we involve children in thinking about and expressing in images what is often beyond linguistic capabilities.’ There’s great scope for wordless picture books to be effective tools in this process so long as they provide the anchors, constraints or assistance necessary to focus young minds on a meaningful and critical reading of images.

To read more fascinating and thoughtful articles about the art of children’s books, see the LOOK/BOOK Report website and follow LOOK/BOOK on Twitter.