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:

Tuesday

Click to purchase

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)  

Tell the Lady What You Like

I just came across this great article from The Horn Book, one of my favorite resources for parents, teachers, librarians, or anyone who appreciates children’s books. I had to share it.

Written in 1997 by Terri Schmitz of The Children’s Book Shop in Brookline, Massachusetts, this article has timeless and sage advice for parents navigating the bookstore with (or for) their kids.

Let’s Call a Kid a Kid

Demographically, the term “young adult” generally refers to people 18-24 or 20-24 years old. You will often see separate categories for  Teens and for Young Adults in surveys, indicating that they are in fact two separate, if overlapping, groups. As I’m sure many of you have noticed, in recent years the term “young adult” has, in some contexts, been adjusted from its traditional meaning referring to, well, young ADULTS, to refer to all teenagers; the two terms are often used interchangeably. In the world of books, especially.  (Even television ratings surveys peg young adults as 18-34 years old.)      

Here at Spellbound, we have a section sign for YA (teens). I felt that was necessary because many people who aren’t in the book business won’t recognize the term YA (Young Adult), or might logically but erroneously assume that the intended audience for young adult books would be…well, young adults, as opposed to the children and teens we are supposed to be catering to. (How silly of them!) Also, our store attracts a lot of advanced readers. The kids and parents are both always looking for books with more challenging reading levels, and this sign is meant to advise customers that the books in this section are intended for teens, not middle graders or unbelievably advanced 6-year-olds, and therefore the subject matter, language, and overall content assume not only the reading level but also the social maturity and frame of reference (life experience) of someone in their teen years or older. Many YA books are specifically suggested (per the publishers) for ages 14 and up or ages 16 and up.   

So I have gone along, to some degree, with the expanding of the term “young adult.” But some people, in my humble opinion, are really pushing this term to the point of ridiculousness.    

I’m really tired of seeing books for the 7 to 10-year-old age group referred to as “young adult.” I’m sorry, but a book for an 8-year-old is not a YA book. Is there any context imaginable in which you could look at an 8-year-old and mistake her for an adult? Is she fully or nearly fully grown, with a physically adult appearance (as many kids are in their mid to late teens)? How adult is she… intellectually? socially? Anything even remotely adult-like? Really?    

I hope that I’m not offending any kid readers with this post. I clearly remember being an adolescent and bristling at being called a child. “Kid” was easier to take. “Teenager” felt great, once I got there. Is this why some marketing folks have lowered and lowered the threshold for the young adult label– to appease kids (yes, I said it: “kids”) who like to fancy themselves all grown up and who have more independent buying power than kids of previous generations? To be fair, I rarely if ever see a publisher label a book for teens or young adults unless there is also a specific age recommendation of at least 12 and up, if not 14 and up. I think this trend of calling books for kids of any age “young adult” happens mostly with reviewers and retailers. 

An upcoming selection for our young adult book club?

Personally, I think that all this does is muddy the category lines so much that they are no longer useful at all. (“Pardon me, but is this Young Adult book: a book for young adults who are adults, or for young adults who are older teens, or for young adults who are younger teens, or for young adults who are still in grade school?”)  One day a few years from now, I fully expect to see someone touting a “bestselling YA book … now in sturdy board book format!”  Give me a break.   

P.S.   

Let me clarify this blog rant by saying that I am actually not in favor of imposing strict age limits, upper or lower, on what kids should read at what age. There is no absolute answer to what a  third grader’s reading level is, or what content is appropriate for a ten-year-old, unless you know something about that particular third grader and that particular ten-year-old. So much depends on the individual kid’s experience with reading and with life. Among my regular kid customers, the best readers routinely read books from the section aimed at their own age group as well as some from the younger sections and some from the older sections. Most kids will also do a fair amount of self-censoring if given the chance: they will either abandon a book that’s too advanced for them (hopefully to return to it in a couple of years) or will skim past the stuff they don’t understand. That being said, publishers, librarians, and booksellers do use terms like “pre-readers,” “early readers,” “early grades,” “middle grades,” and “young adult” to give some general guidance as to what audience a book might be most appropriate for. My beef has to do with specificity of language; I object to labels that are rendered meaningless by our disregard for the meanings of the very words and phrases we’re using to supposedly offer guidance.

An addendum to original post: Here is a June 2010 blog post addressing what makes a novel a YA novel, as opposed to an adult novel, from a literary agent’s perspective.  http://literaticat.blogspot.com/2010/06/what-is-ya-anyway.html