31 Days, 31 Lists: 2019 Wordless Picture Books
I’ll spare you any thoughts that might pass through my mind about pictures being worth a thousand words, and so on, and so on, and such. Better to compare today’s crop of books to the works of comic book artists and illustrators. Sequential art is precisely that. An art. You can’t effectively convey the story in a wordless book without at least a rudimentary grasp of how to move the plot along from point A to point B visually.
Today’s selection is of those 2019 titles that manage to tell their tales without relying on vocabulary to do their dirty work. Some are funny. Some are poignant. All are interesting. All are worth seeking out. Enjoy!
2019 Wordless Picture Books
All Around Bustletown: Winter by Rotraut Susanne Berner
In spite of this book’s thick board book-like pages, I’m inclined to put this in the picture book section due to its size and contents. And what wonderful contents they are, too! This little German import follows in the step of Anno, as you drive by a variety of different winter scenes. Now in the past this book would have cause me a small headache. Why? Because those Europeans, lord love ‘em, are crap at multiculturalism. Not Berner! Somehow she got the memo and so this book is more than just a sea of samey same same white faces. Amazing how that contributes to the joy of picking out all the details and repeating characters, I must say. A seek-and-find book for the 21st century.
Another by Christian Robinson
Robinson channels Suzy Lee in his first wordless title. There might be a little Looney Tunes in there as well, now that I think about it. A girl and her cat go on a nighttime adventure, all thanks to the appearance of a mysterious hole. Following the storyline, such as it is, can be fun, but the real reason to read this as far as I’m concerned has to do with the cat. How did I not know that of all the things Christian Robinson draws, his cats are the best? Man does a mean cat. That’s all I can say.
The Balcony by Melissa Castrillón
Aside from the occasional “Good-bye” or “Hope”, Castrillón (who lives in England) renders this tale of a girl moving from the country to the city with almost no text at all. The illustrations more than make up for this fact, rendered as they are in these lush colored pencils, later colored in digitally. Interestingly, the book it reminded me of the most was Wonder Bear by Tao Nyeu. Both revel in their dreamlike settings. Both show inordinately prosperous growing plants. And both feel that text would only take away from the visual storytelling. Which, to be frank, it would.
Explorers by Matthew Cordell
The natural follow-up to the Caldecott Award-winning Wolf in the Snow came out this year. Another nearly wordless tale (no one speaks but different things make different sounds, so define the term “wordless” howsoever you prefer), the book follow a family as they take a trip to the museum. Some sharp-eyed spotters have declared that the mom in the red coat must clearly be the girl from Wolf in the Snow all grown-up. I was much taken with how Cordell chose to use his hyper-realism. In this case it appears around the characters. The statues of ancient Egyptians, for example, or the head of a dinosaur. Pretty darn cool.
Field Trip to the Moon by John Hare
For me, a lot of the charm of this book lies in its Simpsons-esque big-eyed gray aliens. And as it turns out, Hare is very good at relaying funny moments without any facial features at all. At one point a kid is left behind on the moon, drawing away merrily. Aliens gather behind and you just have a shot of them smiling there (one of them doing a downright Gary Larson-esque, “oo!” face) with the kid’s helmet looking straight at the viewer in a kind of classic, “there’s something behind me, isn’t there?”, moment. It’s hard not to be charmed.
Fly! by Mark Teague
Sometimes getting out of your comfort zone means falling out of a nest. In this wordless wonder, a baby bird tries desperately NOT to fly, with hilarious results. Now I may be prejudiced towards it since I have to watch peregrine falcon fledglings try to learn to fly off of my library buildin every year, but it’s Teague’s unique method of storytelling without words that’s the real star of the show. It’s not a comic, but the speech balloons are an excellent method of communication. Plus that baby robin is just so dang sure of itself. Look at that confidence! Bottle that stuff up and sell it to me!
Inside Outside by Anne-Margot Ramstein, ill. Matthias Arégui
Well, bonjour, you little French import! Wordless books can go in a variety of different directions. They might tell a single story or, like an Anno book, give a vast and sweeping panorama view of a place, all within the framework of a single continuous character. Sometimes, however, I prefer the wordless books along the lines of this one by Ramstein and Arégui. The concept seems amazingly simple. One picture will show something from the inside. The next from the outside. I say “seems” because this is the kind of book that requires a bit of mental exercise on the part of the child readers. For example, there is a shot of an apple with a worm, making tunnels through its interior on one page. In the next that same apple is held in the hand of a lovely lady, just about to have her lunch. Don’t feel too sorry for her, though, as the next page is the inside of a lake, that same worm on the end of a hook, while the outside is the lady smiling as her husband and son do some fishing. The cleverest to my mind are the birds in a cage. Are they inside or outside? Hand this to the child that likes a solvable puzzle, and sharp, thin, clean lines and bright colors to match.
The Space Walk by Brian Biggs
Turns out 2019 was the year a couple artists figured out that outer space is the perfect place to set a wordless book. Now, granted, this book isn’t entirely wordless. There’s some text in the front and the back, but the bulk of the action is outside the astronaut’s space capsule. It’s hard to create new ideas sometimes, but I really appreciated how Biggs came up with this fun metaphor for a kid wanting to go out to play with an astronaut who wants to go out and play. Sort of makes the whole idea of floating in a heartless void a little more cozy.
Spot & Dot by Henry Cole
Sort of a follow-up to the previous book Spot, the Cat. In this book Spot spots Dot the dog, and follows it on a merry chase around the city. Sort of a paean to cities. I like how Cole’s been changing up his style recently. He’s so flexible, and seems to have taken the wordless book as a challenge. The trick in this story is to see if you can spot Dog and Spot on each two-page spread. Some are easier than others but he always plays fair with you.
Stormy: A Story About Finding a Forever Home by Guojing
Ah, Guojing. She did this killer wordless graphic novel a couple years ago called The Only Child which just about destroyed me. Now she’s gone from a lonely child hero to a lonely dog hero. Wordless stories are exceedingly hard, and it takes a really delicate hand to render one that gets you emotionally. Cute doggies are easy enough to empathize with, but this story actually gets beyond that to talk about trust on some level. Pretty darn good.
Tell by Warja Lavater
And here we run into the limitations of labeling. Technically this book really doesn’t have much in the way of words. Just symbols that, when viewed correctly, tell the story of William Tell. The front of the book contains a pocket and inside you’ll find a little key card identifying all the players. There are cards in English, German, French, Italian, and Rumantsch Grischun, because we’re cool like that. Even the design of the book invites discussion. You can flip through the pages as you normally would or you can pull the book apart, accordion-style, to reveal the story in one long strip. Though ostensibly for design students, this would be an excellent title to use with children to wiggle out what they think is happening from scene to scene. Good too for anyone who’s trying to teach kids how to use a Key.
Interested in the other lists? Here’s the schedule of everything being covered this month. Enjoy!
December 1 – Great Board Books
December 2 – Board Book Reprints & Adaptations
December 3 – Transcendent Holiday Picture Books
December 4 – Picture Book Readalouds
December 5 – Rhyming Picture Books
December 6 – Funny Picture Books
December 7 – CaldeNotts
December 8 – Picture Book Reprints
December 9 – Math Books for Kids
December 10 – Bilingual Books
December 11 – Books with a Message
December 12 – Fabulous Photography
December 13 – Translated Picture Books
December 14 – Fairy Tales / Folktales / Religious Tales
December 15 – Wordless Picture Books
December 16 – Poetry Books
December 17 – Easy Books
December 18 – Early Chapter Books
December 19 – Comics & Graphic Novels
December 20 – Older Funny Books
December 21 – Science Fiction Books
December 22 – Informational Fiction
December 23 – American History
December 24 – Science & Nature Books
December 25 – Unconventional Children’s Books
December 26 – Unique Biographies
December 27 – Nonfiction Picture Books
December 28 – Nonfiction Books for Older Readers
December 29 – Older Reprints
December 30 – Middle Grade Novels
December 31 – Picture Books
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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