In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Beyond Words

Dear Annie,

A delightful Dutch book arrived from a publisher this week, reminding me just how varied wordless books can be. This one, called
The Surprise
, by Sylvia van Ommen, follows a serious and industrious sheep while it takes a bath, rides a motorbike to go to the store, buys red dye, dyes its wool (while it’s still on), shears itself, etc., all the way through knitting a gift for a friend. It’s both whimsical and very clear and straightforward.

Peggy Rathmann is the queen of toddler/preschooler wordless books, with both
Good Night Gorilla
, a hilarious and simple story about a mass zoo escape (the goal is to sleep in the zoo-keeper's house), and
10 Minutes till Bedtime
about a boy getting ready for bed while a tour group of hamsters complicates the process. It’s all in the details, and there are lots of them. You can spend many minutes, if not hours, discovering all the things going on in each picture. And it has a number of references in it to Good Night Gorilla.

In Quentin Blake's
, a group of toys is thrown out, and the clown doll sets out to find a new home for all of them. He has setbacks along the way, but ultimately finds a family in need of some cheering up, and they all end up happily together. Blake -- perhaps best-known for his illustrations of Roald Dahl books -- puts lots of emotion into this one.

David Wiesner does more complex, weirder and (sometimes) darker wordless books, but for an older child, they're quite wonderful. In
, frogs float out of a swamp one evening on lily pads and have adventures in town, turning back into their land-based selves at the end of the evening. The pictures are amazing, bordering on the eerie, with details one can keep finding on re-readings. And his
puts a washed-up camera at the feet of a boy exploring the beach. He develops the film in the camera, finding fantastic pictures of magical underwater worlds, and self-portraits of other children who have found the camera. At the end, he takes a picture of himself, and sends the camera back into the waves.

I'll end at the ocean still, on another younger book.
, by Suzy Lee, shows a girl's day at the beach, with all the wonder and occasional overwhelmingness of the waves. Lovely.

So now that I've listed these, I'm wondering how you as the reader in the parent/child group, feel about wordless books. A welcome change? An extra task (now I've got to make up the story too...)? Something that can be read without you around? What do you think of them?




  1. Some I love, some I don't. Suzy Lee has another nice one, Mirror, with mirror images on each set of double pages. But my favorite set of wordless books are Sunshine and Moonlight by Jan Ormerod, which I discovered serendipitously at Books of Wonder. They follow the same family, once upon waking (Sunshine) and once upon bedtime (Moonlight) and I can't recommend them highly enough. They are so relatable and lovely.

  2. Rachel -
    I just got Moonlight for the store based on your comments -- it's lovely. Have to order Sunshine by a more circuitous route, but hope to have it soon. Thank you!

  3. I am not always a huge fan of wordless books, but my girls, especially my 18-month old, love Tabby by Aliki, the story of a girl who adopts a cat from an animal shelter. It follows their first year together, through the seasons. There's a picture of Tabby the cat on every page, which makes my Ellie VERY happy. At one point there's even a SECOND cat! TOO exciting.

  4. Deborah - I'm so glad you liked Moonlight!

  5. PS - we also like Eat Up Gemma with illustrations by Jan Ormerod. It has words, though - I think the author is Sarah Hayes. Her other Gemma book, Happy Christmas, Gemma (the author is British, I believe, thus "happy" Christmas) is not as good.