Strong and Thought Provoking Wordless Books
Jean Schroeder and Kathleen Crawford-McKinney
This month we are looking at sophisticated wordless picture books, books that have more relevance in ways other then humor. Many wordless picture books make us take a look at ourselves and laugh such as in Flora and the Flamingo (Idle, 2013) or The Happy Dog (Tanaka, 1981). The four books we have chosen are: Time Flies by Eric Rohmann (1994), The Girl and the Bicycle by Mark Pett (2014), Unspoken by Henry Cole (2012), and Here I am story by Patti Kim pictures by Sonia Sanchez (2014).
This month’s four wordless picture books, we want to examine how these wordless books are strong and thought provoking without humor at the center, making the reader stop and think about what the book is exploring. And it is all done without the use of words to tell the story. The readers bring their own values, experiences, and language to the book, and once they meet the illustrations they create their own story. Wordless picture books, when used in a text set for literature discussion, provide access to meaning of the text for each individual and those differences make the discussion richer.
Time Flies by Eric Rohmann (1994)
Kathleen: This week we examine Time Flies, an older book that still is quite relevant especially this summer with a new resurgence and interest on dinosaurs with the new Jurassic Park movie.
Jean: Something that is important to this topic is that dinosaurs never go out of style. It is a universal topic that is popular with all generations of kids.
Kathleen: Just to refresh our memories – this 1994 Caldecott honor book, through the eyes of a small bird, takes us through a history museum and turns the dinosaur bones into live creatures.
Jean: As the bird flies through the museum the dinosaurs come alive in the bird’s imagination, which is what happens often with children who go through museums. In the first picture you just see the museum walls, and shadows of the dinosaurs; as the bird continues and the dinosaurs fill out, take shape and become life-like. You start seeing trees, lakes and mountains in the background scenery. You feel you are there in this living, breathing scene.
Kathleen: You get a better feeling of the dinosaurs because Rohmann uses such a small bird in relationship to the large size of the dinosaurs, which almost never fit on one page, but fall off the edges.
Jean: The illustrations also change as time changes through the book. At first, the pages are in sepia tones, creating the ambiance of the museum after hours – lights down and no activity. As the bird’s imagination takes flight, the dinosaurs come to life with color and activity, drawing in kids.
Kathleen: An aspect of the illustrations that I found fascinating is that each illustration is a 2-page spread. At the beginning of the book when you are still within the walls of the museum, each 2-page spread has a white border that surrounds the deep sepia colors. Then, when the walls change and become the world of dinosaurs – the borders disappear – much like the illustrations in Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are (1963). When we return back within the walls of the museum, there are again borders around the illustrations.
Jean: Tn the page where one of the dinosaurs eats the bird, the expression on the face of the dinosaur looks so self-satisfied. You have to wonder if the bird is so small, how can he possibly even taste it. Looking in the distance a lightening streak is in the sky – and it is dark and ominous. It appears to predict that impending danger?
Kathleen: On the other hand, maybe the bird was annoying him, like a fly does to us? Examining the page before that illustration the bird’s eyes relay a mean look, you can hear the bird screeching at the dinosaur. That is why I think he ate him! I also found the page where bird is in the mouth of the dinosaur interesting; he is flying through the large mouth, the teeth are bigger then the bird. The tongue might be the predicted danger from the previous page?
Jean: The tongue reminds me of a river – so the journey through time continues. At the end of the book, Rohmann goes back to using sepia colors, and returning to the museum in present day – but not leaving the piece of imagination that is still alive within you. The trees are still in the illustration, but they are taking on the feeling of pillars.
Kathleen: It is interesting to read this book going forward and backward through the pictures. You find new story lines that make you consider different aspects of the dinosaurs during their time in history.
Jean: Something I realized from a personal experience: I recently visited the Natural History Museum in New York City. When you walk in you are greeted by a dinosaur…and a gazillion people. How wonderful that we as viewers in this museum are taken through a perspective that highlights the imagination and wonder that may not be experienced in today’s museums because of the large crowds at dinosaur displays. The book might be a better place to engage your imagination as you do not have to deal with the hustle and bustle of a popular museum and the other visitors distracting you. For me they made it hard if not impossible to jump into the land of dinosaurs.
The Girl and the Bicycle by Mark Pett (2014).
Jean: This is a story of perseverance. This girl is DRIVEN to get a bicycle she sees in a store window. She does not give up – she set a goal and went for it, determined to make enough money to purchase the bike. She begins by emptying her piggy bank and then looks everywhere, including the couch for a little loose change and pants pockets before they go into the washing machine. You see her pondering ways to earn money and then acting on those possibilities. She sets up a lemonade stand and has a yard sale. She offers her services to neighbors and doesn’t give up when turned away. Finally she finds someone who hires her on. She doesn’t get lazy on the job either; she works and works until she can afford it. This takes a long time – for a full year as noted in the change of seasons through the story – in order to earn enough money. What I like about this is the values it demonstrates for children. Honesty and hard work, sticking to it – and as far as we can tell, there is no whining…maybe an advantage of a wordless book??
Kathleen: I see this book as building a strong relationship. As she is searching ways to find or make money, she encounters a neighbor woman who provides chores for the girl to do in order to make money. We see that the girl works with the neighbor over a long period of time. You see her raking leaves, planting vegetables, cleaning out the garage – but she does all these chores with the neighbor woman – not alone. The woman seems to be her guardian, watching over her. I see the strong relationship that the woman provided – but did the little girl recognize this relationship? She does work hard to earn the money and towards the end of the story when she finally has the money needed to purchase her bike, she drags her little brother back down the city street to the toy store where her bike is. Sadly, the bike is gone from the store window. She appears deflated that she did not get her bike. But she turns around and uses her money to purchase a tricycle for her little brother. She provides him with what she wanted most in the world and he is delighted. On the way home the two children pass the neighbor’s house and the woman stops her. The girl shows her neighbor the tricycle. But the woman has a surprise – she has purchased the bike for the girl. The relationship that she built with neighbor woman is shown on the faces of both characters. Yes, a tear came to my eye when she runs back to the woman and gives her big hug. I like my happily ever after stories.
Jean: You get the sense that this is a lasting relationship, not one that is done now that the girl has the bike. I like the big bow that the neighbor woman put on the bike.
Kathleen: This might be a sign that the relationship has moved beyond a working relationship to a more permanent friendship.
Jean: The pictures are all illustrated in black and grey muted tones – but you know who the main characters are especially on the first 2-page spread because in a crowd of people walking down a city block, the main characters are shaded darker than the rest of the illustration on that page, and therefore stand out.
Kathleen: But the author has used a touch of blue on the bike, putting it at thecenter of the story.
Jean: The bike is only in a few of the illustrations, but you know it is central to the story.
Kathleen: As compared to Time Flies, where all of the illustrations are 2-page spreads that take up the entire page with little or no white space, Pett uses very few 2-page spreads. His illustrations use the 2-page to take you through the story – but most of the pages have at least 2-3 scenes. The format he used provides a sense of a storyboard.
Jean: One way to use a storyboard is to sketch the first and last frame of a story and ask how did the story get from here to there. As you add frames, you keep asking that same question. When there is no answer, your story is pretty much told. I think this book is a good demonstration of that; as you not only see the girl doing, you also see her thinking.
Kathleen: And she does it all without the parents being visible. You know their influence as she would not be able to make so many good decisions without parental guidance along the way.
Jean: And it is interesting to me that she is often given the responsibility of a younger sibling. This points to the girl’s trustworthiness as well. A great book for values on many levels.
Unspoken by Henry Cole (2014).
Jean: If ever there was a book that needed to be a wordless picture book this is it. The whole story is based on secrecy, hiding, keeping quiet and trusting others to stay quiet, too.
Kathleen: Yes – it is a story in the shadows, which is emphasized by the visible shadows in the illustrations.
Jean: Scene is set in first double page spread by having the confederate soldiers ride through the farm. I expect they stopped to be fed. The diminutive cat in the scene creates the sense of fear and danger in the story. In the initial scene the cat is leading the girl and cow, but once you turn the page you find the cat clinging to the girl. The girl may also be predicting the danger afoot by looking for comfort by holding the cat. Even the cow has a look of concern in her eyes.
Kathleen: Right – so the context of this book takes place during the civil war, on a farm where it appears to be under the watch of the Confederate Army. In the first several pages the story line is simple – the girl watches the confederate soldiers ride through their farm, she tends to the chickens and cow.
Jean: Life seemed to have returned to normal, but as the girl collects food for dinner from the storage shed, the feeling of uneasiness reawakens the tension for the reader.
Kathleen: She has the sense that she is not alone. Looking carefully – the movement in the illustration of the cornstalks leads your eye up to a corner where an eye is peering out – looking at the girl. Even though there are no words – the rustle of the cornstalks are heard loud and clear on this page. The sudden look in the girl’s facial expression let’s you know she knows she is not alone.
Jean: On the next page, that tension is heightened by the close-up magnified nature of the illustration and the eye is now more centered on the page.
Kathleen: At first I found this first to be a bit unnerving.
Jean: I am reminded of all the surveillance cameras we are monitored by today. It is a creepy feeling.
Kathleen: I was intrigued by the illustrator’s decision of revealing just one eye of the slave in multiple illustrations. The first time he is revealed – it takes a little searching, but on the next page, you expect to find the slave – the eye appears immediately as the page is turned.
Jean: Frightened, the girl runs, but now has a new dilemma – to tell her mother and grandparents or to maintain the silence. She chooses silence, but that leaves the readers with major questions. Do the adults know of their visitor and are silent as it puts them all at risk to speak of it or if they knew would the turn their visitor over to the slave hunters? Where do their values lie?
Kathleen: Then you see the girl searching her own values during when a prayer is being said at the dinner table.
Jean: Her true character comes bounding through in the next pages as she brings food for the hidden visitor. I wonder if the girl ever sees this person.
Kathleen: Notice in the sky on one of her trips to the shed that the big dipper is prominent in the sky.
Kathleen: When the slave hunters arrive, Cole once again uses the eye to increase the tension of the situation.
Jean: But this time it is the girl’s eye. Is she hiding because her nervousness might give her secret away?
Kathleen: Or has she been excluded by the adults on purpose, but she has sneaked into hearing distance?
Jean: I notice, too, that the illustrator leads your eye on this page to the “Reward” portion of the run away poster…implying that the reward is more important than a human life.
Kathleen: I love that the soon-to-be free person leaves a memento for the girl and that she treasures it.
Jean: Yes, she is happy that she has made good decisions. She has taken pride in her work without any of her family having to tell her. It is all done without words. Taking pride in one’s work is something that seems often to be a difficult concept for many of today’s kids.
Kathleen: I also find it interesting that the style of illustrations of this book and last week’s book, The Girl and the Bicycle, both use very muted tones. Cole’s use of graphite pencil sketches in shades of grey and Pett’s pencil and watercolor tones both allude to a more solemn and serious theme.
Jean: Yes, and I love the illustration on the back cover of Unspoken that invites readers to take a deep look into themselves and their own values.
Kathleen: When you go through the whole book you recognize the gumption it took to provide such kindness during this time in American history. So even though with a first read I had an unnerving feeling, after multiple walk-throughs of this text I find it a book that keeps calling you back to explore the secrecy and silence portrayed through these illustrations.
Here I Am by Patti Kim, illustrations by Sonia Sanchez (2014).
Kathleen: This is by far my favorite of all four books we discussed this month. I am not sure this can be totally classified as a wordless picture book because there are signs and symbols used in the book. But for our purposes we decided it fits the theme because the story is not told in words – but in pictures.
Jean: Wordless or not? Hhhmmm. I never considered it as anything else, but I’ll get back to that later.
Kathleen: On my first read through, I sat on each page for long periods of time trying to understand the meaning because there is a lot going on in each panel. It was overwhelming at first. But the further into the book I went, as the story line took shape, the boy’s search for a sense of belonging came through.
Jean: Each page has multiple panels, too, so the reader has to slow down to take in all that is going on, unlike the large illustrations in Unspoken, The Girl and the Bicycle and Time Flies where you need to slow down to take in the whole of the picture.
Kathleen: This story leads us through the experiences and changes that the boy and his family encounter as they immigrate to a new country. They arrive by plane in New York where the boy seems confused by the world around him. Signs hanging throughout the airport, street signs, the constant motion of people, cars, noise, surround him and push him to a place of fear. His place of calmness appears in the moments of solitude he has when thinking back to his home country.
Jean: The panels themselves mirror those feelings. They are sometimes slanted, sometimes without borders adding to the feeling of unfamiliarity and confusion. There are lots of vertical and straight lines that slant slightly and seem to illuminate the tension and excitement of arriving in a new place knowing it will be your home.
Kathleen: The child is miserable. He feels totally isolated in school and lost in the unfamiliar city. The only thing that seems to make him happy is remembering his life in Korea. He spends his time watching the world pass by from his apartment.
Jean: He has brought a seed from his homeland that he treasures as it transports him back to happier times. When holding his seed one day, he accidentally drops it onto the street below where it is picked up by a girl jumping rope. He is devastated. This reminds me of the book The Lotus Seed (Garland 1993) when a family is forced to immigrate and the grandmother brings a single lotus seed from her homeland. The grandchild finds it and plants it, but the grandmother thinks her last connection to her homeland is gone.
Kathleen: The loss of his seed encourages the boy to venture out in search of the girl. He finds himself out on the busy streets where encounters the neighbors, other children and local commerce that surround city living in the small radius of his apartment.
Jean: You see his confusion begin to turn into understanding as a smile starts to appear on his face. The panels are less in number now, no longer overlapping and in bright colors instead of the darker, more somber tones used in earlier illustrations. More of the panels have borders suggesting more order in his life.
Kathleen: I found it interesting that there is an author and an illustrator for this wordless picture book. Typically in wordless picture books one person is both author and illustrator – the sole storyteller. Even though the story is not told in a written language, there is environmental print sporadically throughout, but it tends to be symbols that are difficult for the boy to understand. Perhaps they are used to show the reader the struggles someone with a different language encounters when immigrating to a new county with a new language and new culture. The author tells her own story of her immigration to the United States from Korea – which is what this story is based upon.
Jean: I don’t know – some might say that art and illustration ARE a language. The signs and environmental print in the story emphasize his confusion and his learning process. The one place I see written language is on the last page. The boy looks into a pond and sees his reflection. The words “Here I am” written in the pond reflect his thinking.
Kathleen: The style of illustration is in direct opposition to the previous three books, Using traditional and graphic medium, Sanchez captures the feelings of fear, frustration, anger, loneliness, and acceptance.
Jean: I have to wonder about the collaboration between author and illustrator. It is almost like one person is writing an autobiography and the other a biography.
Kathleen: I found a u-tube video that unfortunately uses language to tell you what this story is about, but more importantly, it uses the sounds of the city to capture the emotions that eventually leads to a sense of belonging in this new country with new people to call friends. If your interested, listen to the sounds of this book.
For more books with a similar topic on relocation or movement see the April 2015 entries.