Wordless Books in the Library

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Wordless books can be a librarian’s secret weapon for having a raucous story time! Students vie to give their interpretations to what happened, what IS happening and what is about to happen. Amidst the controlled chaos, wondrous learning is occuring. Students are comprehending the story by inferring from the picture clues. Predictions of what comes next spout as each one defends their choice by citing evidence from the pages. The why’s and where’s spotlight their oral language skills. All from a book with pictures – and no words. Sounds like they have mastered some of the Common Core Standards for ELA, all while having fun with a story.

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Jim Trelease, author of The Read-Aloud Handbook, states that, “Wordless books are a wonderful introduction to books and plotting for children who can’t read yet. Since we become picture-literate before we become print-literate, they can “read” the book if someone helps blaze a trail through the narrative initially. After hearing the book and seeing how the clues for the narrative are all in the pictures/illustrations, the child can pretend to read, though in fact they are taking real steps in reading…” (qtd. In Levin).They can convey the plot line to younger students or siblings while they practice essential pre-reading skills. Students can experience success with a book, even when they do not have solid text reading skills.

Wordless books are not just for Kindergarten or Preschool students. Strong visual literacy skills not only help students learn to read text, but also ‘read’ other visual presentations of information in their lives. Pictures, video and infographics depend on their readers to have strong visual literacy in order to tell the full story (easter eggs anyone?). Wordless books can be used as opportunities to discuss current events and difficult issues. In Shaun Tan’s Arrival, one is drawn into the experience of being an immigrant, where everything is so different and strange when you arrive into a new country. How else could we experience that without being an immigrant ourselves except by going through it with the main character? The 48 pages in Unspoken: A Story from the Underground Railroad by Henry Cole would take more pages than that to unpack all that occurs. What should determine the right thing to do, my conscience or my culture? Why? By Nikolai Popov should be required reading for anyone who studies war or has their fingers near the button.

Photograph, George Fujii (on right)     Depending upon the time you have for library instruction, there are many ways to use wordless books. When using them for story time, it’s important that you ask the students questions, like ‘what is happening in this picture? What makes you think that? What do you think happens next?’ Unlike some other picture books, wordless books are works of collaboration between the illustrator, you and the readers. For station work or for group work, you might print several pages of a wordless book and have the student draw either what came before or what comes next after the series of pictures. Using comic strip graphic organizers, students can create their own ‘wordless book’ with guide words on top like ‘beginning, middle and end’. Some of the aforementioned wordless books with older students can be used as catalysts for discussions or writings about current events. Asking students to create alternative endings or using images to express their own opinions about subjects may make those students that aren’t as successful within the written realm to express themselves fully with images and pictures.
With so many upsides I’m sure you’ll be adding wordless books to your library routine soon. Following are short descriptions of some of my favorite (and the Caldecott committee as well!) wordless stories. Enjoy!

97860Tuesday, Flotsam, Section 7, Mr. Wuffles ,etc. – David Wiesner. With three Caldecotts and two honors to his name, Wiesner is the king of illustrators. I LOVE to use Tuesday with K-1’s because the humor and whimsy is side-splitting. After the spectacle of flying frogs on one Tuesday, when the students see the last page of the next flying animal, I always hear several go, Ohhhh, Noooo! And giggle. What is better than that? One could do an entire author/illustrator unit of several weeks just using his work.

773276Good Night, Gorilla – Peggy Rathman. I buy this board book for anyone in my acquaintance that is having a baby. The look on all of the animals faces when they are discovered in the bedroom will make any adult laugh out loud. Teamed with Rathman’s 10 Minutes to Bedtime, you have a themed story time that every child will relate with. If you use Peggy Rathman’s website’s http://www.hamstertours.com/ in a station or with the group, your students will think you too are powered by hamsters!

6534132The Lion and the Mouse – Jerry Pinkney. This 2010 Caldecott winner can only be described as luscious. The story of how even the small can help the mighty resonates with young children. Don’t forget his equally incredible The Tortoise & the Hare.

9703979A Ball for Daisy – Chris Rascha. Students can relate to Daisy who is so happy with her favorite toy, a ball and is devastated when that ball is destroyed by another dog. Conversations about how to be a good friend and why it’s okay to be sad sometimes flow naturally from this story.

29102937A Wolf in the Snow – Matthew Cordell. Last year’s Caldecott Winner displays unlikely friends helping each other when they find themselves lost from their pack (or people). Notice how many of these wordless books are Caldecott winners or honor books? Hmmmm.

18475599The Farmer and the Clown – Marla Frazee. A little clown is separated from his clown family. A grumpy old farmer takes him in. Just as the two become firm friends, the clown family returns. For some reason, this one makes me tear up. Humans being beautiful to each other does that.

352295The Knight and the Dragon – Tomie dePaola (and his Pancakes for Breakfast)! The knight has a problem. The dragon has a problem. Who can help solve their problems? Well, let’s try the librarian princess. Yes, this one has some words (Pancakes does not). But together, they are a great little unit on how to solve problems – and one features a librarian. Seriously, it doesn’t get better than that!

For Older Students

13591670Unspoken – Henry Cole. A young girl discovers a runaway slave in her barn. What should she do? Her culture says one thing. What does her heart say? Especially useful for starting discussions about how to do what’s right when others (friends) may be pulling you to do what’s wrong.

36095343A Stone for Sascha – Aaron Becker. Another priceless work by Aaron Becker, author/illustrator of the wordless trilogy Journey, which also won a Caldecott Honor. This 2018 picture book tells the story of a young girl whose dog has died, and she has to experience her vacation without her for the first time. A stone which arrived from space and has seen dinosaurs and civilizations come and go gives her comfort. More suitable for older students.

37975169Vacation – Blexbolex. You are having a lovely holiday with your grandfather and then he brings back from the train station… an elephant? How would you react? How would anyone reasonable react to an elephant spoiling the fun.

920607The Arrival – Shaun Tan. A man’s country is overwhelmed by monsters. He must leave his family and everything he knows behind to try and make a new home for his family in a country where he can’t communicate and all is strange. Using fantastical creatures and symbols to convey the disorientation one experiences in a new place is genius.

151774Why? Nikolai Popov. A frog sits on a rock, enjoying the day and minding his own business. Suddenly, he is attacked by a mouse wielding an umbrella. Soon a minor scuffle becomes a all-out war. Why? Be prepared for discussions of big issues.

Kelly Depin is the Director of Libraries and Technology at Derby Academy in Hingham, MA. Derby Academy (Prek-8) was established in 1784 and is one of the oldest continuous co-educational institutions in the United States. 

Levin, Vanessa. “Jim Trelease: Wordless Picture Books.” Pre-K Pages, 20 Feb. 2018, www.pre-kpages.com/jim-trelease-wordless-picture-books/.

Image Credits
Creator:National Gallery of Art, Young Girl Reading painted by Jean Honore Fragonard c. 1769.
Credit:image courtesy National Gallery of Art
Photograph, Lady Bird Johnson Visiting a Project Head Start Classroom, March 19, 1966. Johnson White House Photographs from the National Archives, White House Photo Office Collection identifer #596401.

Books for Discussing September 11th

One of the bonuses of being a librarian and a mother, is that my daughters often try to surprise me with books I am not familiar with when they come home from a trip to our public library. One Saturday this summer, I arrived home to find a library book selected by youngest daughter on my desk. I am a native New Yorker and I believe she picked out the book because of its setting, noted in the title.

New Yorks BravestI dug into New York’s Bravest, pouring over the lush illustrations by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher. I immediately found myself captivated by the story of a man whose legend was larger than life. Mose Humphreys had overwhelming strength and character, and an unyielding sense of duty. His life ultimately ended in the line of duty and the narrative brought me to tears. Through the story I also gained a deeper understanding of the connection and sense of community firefighters have not only in New York City, but in all areas where we live today.

The book includes a historical note about the origins of this tall tale. And fittingly, the book is dedicated to the 343 New York City firefighters who lost their lives while saving others on September 11th. After researching the book I also found that Mary Pope Osborne included a longer, different version of this legend in her collection American Tall Tales. New York’s Bravest is a gem and reading the book aloud I believe would prompt great discussions with young children about the job firefighters do and the risks they take to save others.

FireboatMaira Kalman uses the history of New York City and a detailed description of the John J. Harvey Fireboat launched in 1931, to set the stage for the incredible work the boat did in the hours after the attack on 9/11.

The theme of citizenship, which resonates so clearly in this book, provides a way to discuss the events of September 11th with children. Maira Kalman describes the events and the response from New Yorkers by writing:

“The news spread. The city had been attacked. Everyone was terrified. But people were brave. The entire city sprang into action. Firefighters and police officers and doctors and construction workers and teachers and cooks and children and parents. The mayor was strong. He said, “We will all work together. We will not be broken.”

Fireboat TowersThe illustrations are remarkable. Maria Kalman’s signature colorful, warm style and captures the people who experienced the day and their steadfast determination, working together to repair the city.

14 Cows for AmericaA Maryland Black-Eyed Susan picture book nominee, Carmen Agra Deedy’s 14 Cows for America provides a unique, global perspective on the events of September 11th. In her collaboration with Wilson Kimeli Naiyomah, the author uses the vehicle of storytelling to communicate the events of the day paired with beautiful, evocative illustrations.

“There is a terrible stillness in the air as the tale unfolds. With growing disbelief, men, women, and children listen. Buildings so tall they can touch the sky? Fires so hot they can melt iron? Smoke and dust so thick they can block out the sun?”

Yet, from the story it is clear that no matter how great our differences, we are empathetic. The response from the people in a small village in Kenya and their touching gift of fourteen cows for America define the essence of the Maasai – a people, “ …fierce when provoked, but easily moved to kindness when they hear of suffering or injustice.” This book also provides a stepping stone for broadly discussing ritual, cultural values, and immigration.

In the concluding note from Kimeli Naiyomah he writes, “The Maasai wish is that every time Americans hear this simple story of fourteen cows, they will find a measure of comfort and peace.”  We are fortunate as Librarians and teachers to utilize books like these that provide a conduit for healing and way we can remember September 11th, 2001 and move forward.