Not a Word

I have been extremely happy to help a couple of different customers in the last few weeks who have come in to the bookshop specifically looking for wordless picture books. Why so happy? Because over the last eight years I have generally found that wordless picture books, no matter how visually stunning, hilarious or touching or award-winning, can be a really tough sell.

And that’s a shame.

Now, I should be quick to point out that there is no lack of interest in these books on the part of children. It’s the adult shoppers accompanying the kids who almost always poo-poo the idea of taking one of these treasures home. Even if they profess admiration for the artwork, they tend to immediately dismiss it on the grounds that they want to encourage their children to “actually read” or that their child is “already reading,” as if that automatically means that a wordless book is a step backward.

Not so, I say!

For one thing, to say that there is no value–intellectual, developmental, spiritual, or otherwise–in taking the time to look at pieces of artwork is like saying that we should stop taking kids (or adults) to art museums and galleries. There is no worth? Really? And believe me, there is some stunning artwork being published, with or without words, in books for children.

For another thing, to dismiss out of hand the educational value of a wordless story is to “out” yourself as an adult who has forgotten how to look at things with a child’s eye. Sadly, that is most of us, at one time or another.

Have you ever noticed how a kid who hasn’t started reading fluently on his or her own will often open a book and pretend to read it? I see it all the time in the bookshop. An adorable scene: a little one turning pages, pointing to things in the pictures, making up the story on the fly. With or without words on the page, this is a wonderful exercise for a child’s burgeoning literacy.

Being able to recognize and empathize with facial expressions and other visual cues related to the story are very important to developing reading comprehension. Let me emphasize that word again: comprehension. Learning to read (and read well) is not just about being able to sound out longer and longer words. It’s about fully comprehending what you are reading, in all its detail and nuance.

When a child reads a wordless picture book on his own, he generally will not just flip through the pages impatiently and put it down, like an adult browsing in the bookstore or library. He will pore over every picture, go back and forth, following the thread of the story, seeing if he missed anything, filling in the blanks with his own imagination. Sometimes, depending on the illustrations, one can experience different stories with the same book at different times. Reading like this (yes, reading) is amazingly interactive.

Even outside the context of  reading skills as we usually define them, developing visual literacy is something that is becoming more and more important for children growing up in an image-saturated society. Being able to understand visual cues, recognize archetypal or iconic images, and articulate what you are seeing are all skills that strengthen your ability to think critically about images you are presented with as a consumer and also makes you capable of creating and communicating with images effectively as a student, a teacher, an artist, a business person, or practically any role you may play in society.

Here are a few of my personal favorite wordless picture books:


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David Wiesner received the 1991 Caldecott Medal for Tuesday, the whimsical account of a Tuesday when frogs go airborne on their lily pads, float through the air, and explore the nearby houses while their inhabitants sleep.Target age group 5-8 years, but enjoyable for all ages.

Click to purchase

Click to purchase

Winner of the 2012 Caldecott Medal, A Ball for Daisy is yet another medal winner by Chris Raschka, one of my all-time favorite illustrators. Any child who has ever had a beloved toy break will relate to Daisy’s anguish when her favorite ball is destroyed by a bigger dog. In the tradition of his nearly wordless picture book Yo! Yes?,  Raschka explores in pictures the joy and sadness that having a special toy can bring. Raschka’s signature swirling, impressionistic illustrations and his affectionate story will particularly appeal to young dog lovers and teachers and parents who have children dealing with the loss of something special. Target age group 3-7 years.
In illustrations of rare detail and surprise, The Red Book by Barbara Lehman crosses oceans and continents to deliver one girl into a new world of possibility, where a friend she’s never met is

Click to purchase

Click to purchase

waiting. And as with the best of books, at the conclusion of the story, the journey is not over.

This book is about a book. A magical red book without any words. When you turn the pages you’ll experience a new kind of adventure through the power of story.

A Caldecott Honor Book
Target age group 4-8

“The author’s simply drawn art…is appropriate to a pleasing puzzle that will challenge young imaginations and intellects.” —Horn Book

Published in: on March 30, 2013 at 1:26 pm  Comments (1)  

Rosmerta, Minerva, and Me

Last weekend (opening weekend) I met some friends at The Carolina to see Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows Part 2. It would be a gargantuan understatement to say that we were excited about the movie; we’d been counting down the days for months now, and arrangements for Saturday night included the phrase “When do you want to see it the first time?” (It went without saying that this final installment of the movie series would require multiple viewings.)

When I showed up in my Harry and The Potters glow-in-the-dark tee shirt my friends Jessica and Brad, who had gotten there earlier and saved me a seat, both had wands at the ready. (Seriously.) As I scooted into my seat next to Jessica, I realized that on my other side was none other than my very first Spellbound employee, Alexa!

If you shopped at our store in our early days in West Asheville, you probably remember Alexa; after she graduated from college she went to work as a children’s librarian at the East Asheville branch of the  public library, where she continues to delight kids and parents with story time–just like the old days!

It was totally unplanned, but what a wonderful moment of serendipity. Alexa was my right-hand woman in many ways back then, particularly in pulling off the huge midnight book release parties for Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince and Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows. You may recall that Alexa was dressed as Madam Rosmerta at the Hallows party. And of course Alexa’s husband Jeremy accompanied her to the movie–Jeremy, although he didn’t work at Spellbound, was also a big presence at the Potter parties. For any of you who remember being sorted at the Half-Blood party, Jeremy helped us rig up the Sorting Hat and acted as its voice. One of the best parts of the party, and I am eternally grateful!

What made the evening at the movies extra special is that on my other side was Jessica, whom I first met when she was engaged to play the role of Professor Minerva McGonagall at the Half-Blood party. She repeated the performance at the Hallows party, and has since become one of my best friends and my faithful companion for all subsequent Potter-related activities.

So there I was, taking in the momentous last installment of the Harry Potter world on film, nestled between Professor McGonagall and Madam Rosmerta. A perfect ending. Of course, we’ve already made plans to see it again. Accio weekend!

Published in: on July 19, 2011 at 4:08 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Weary of Winter? So Is Brownie Groundhog!

One of my favorite new picture books in this very new year is Brownie Groundhog and the February Fox, with text by Susan Blackaby and illustrations by Carmen Segovia.

When Brownie wakes up and goes outside on the second day of February, she is dismayed to see her shadow stretching across the field.

Brownie stomps her foot. “Phooey!” she says. “Six more weeks of winter!”

Brownie is impatient for Spring to get here, and she uses her impatience plus some quick thinking to distract the little fox who has targeted Brownie as his next meal.

“Don’t be silly,” she says when the fox announces he’s planning to eat her for breakfast. “You’re too late for breakfast.”

When the fox proposes eating her for lunch, she proclaims that it’s too early and that he’ll just have to wait. And so goes the rest of the day, as the fox tags along with Brownie and waits for it to be a proper mealtime. After spending so much time together, of course the two eventually become friends.

Both the text and the illustrations are that perfect combination of timeless and fresh, and kudos to the book designer–everything from the font to the choice of paper comes together perfectly to complement the words and pictures. Although the title lends itself to a Groundhog Day display, Brownie’s shadow is just mentioned at the beginning of this charming story. Part trickster tale and part odd couple friendship tale, this is a sweet and funny book that kids will enjoy coming back to all winter (and all year) long.


Published in: on January 15, 2011 at 6:00 pm  Leave a Comment  
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