31 Days, 31 Lists: 2020 Wordless Picture Books
Every year I contemplate the pros and cons of changing the categories of the 31 Days, 31 Lists sequence. Wouldn’t it be better to replace something with Alphabet Books, maybe? Or perhaps Sports. People would like to know about good books about sports that came out in 2020, right? There’s always a danger that if any category were to be cut, it would probably be Wordless Picture Books. I mean, think about it. How many good ones are released in the course of a year?
Well, I can’t speak for every year, but in 2020 I discovered twelve wordless titles of such variety and complexity that I found myself tongue-tied (no pun intended). Many involve boats and journeys. Some focus on immigration. Others on the great outdoors and nature. Still others on the very nature of art and museums. In a year when so many of us were left speechless at the events of the world, there is comfort in finding books that are just as speechless as we. That doesn’t mean, of course, that they don’t have something to say.
2020 Wordless Picture Books
Bye, Penguin! by Seou Lee
In this charmer a little penguin finds itself on a runaway ice floe for a trip around the world. It’s a Korean import and not, on first glance, a particularly complex or complicated storyline. That said, but it’s hard not be delighted by the way in which Penguin orchestrates his return trip and eventual triumph. There’s beautiful digital art at work inside. You know how some folks use wordless books with children that can’t understand a new language yet? This would be an ideal book for that purpose.
Dandelion’s Dream by Yoko Tanaka
This particular book was created with charcoal and then subsequently colored in digitally. It’s such a goofy little story too. A little dandelion becomes a dandelion-maned tiny lion. In this way he has a series of very small adventures. By the end, you’re not even sure if anything in this book has truly happened, or if the dandelion has been daydreaming the whole time. I’m inclined to think the latter (the title gives that distinct impression). It’s a lovely work, but it’s awful hard to describe it without saying the word “dreamlike” over and over again.
Hike by Pete Oswald
A gender neutral kid has a day out in the great outdoors with their dad. Where are they going? Is there an end goal in mind? Clearly, Pete Oswald has been holding out on us. We thought he was all about goofy books about eggs and seeds and stuff, but it turns out that when you let him loose on a storyline about nature he can really crank up the pretty spreads.
One word: vistas.
The Hunter and His Dog: A Fantastical Journey Through the World of Bruegel by Sassafras de Bruyn
Under normal circumstances, it kind of bugs me when an illustrator tries to replicate the work of a great artist in their own picture books. That said, I have nothing but admiration for what Sassafras (SUCH a good name) has accomplished here. The book is a wordless journey taken by a single man and his dog. A tear in the very fabric of where he stands allows him to travel from one Bruegel painting to another. Not as up on your Bruegel as you might be? Have no fear, there’s a helpful guide at the back that indicates each painting the poor man finds himself in. At first he has a terrible time of it, falling into stories like The Tower of Babel, The Triumph of Death, and The Fall of the Rebel Angels (which have a distinctly Hieronymus Bosch feel) but eventually he finds himself in far more enjoyable scenes like The Wedding Dance, The Land of Cockaigne, and The Hunters in the Snow. A wonderful author’s note at the end fills in additional information about Bruegel. I already knew that he was interesting because he was painting in the 16th century but wasn’t making art of royalty. Instead, he preferred normal, everyday peasant folks. What I didn’t know was how his paintings lasted as long as they did. Two centuries after his death his family was STILL painting! You don’t need words to appreciate what the artist pulls off in this book. It’s just a joy, Bruegel interest or no Bruegel interest.
Mayhem at the Museum: A Book in Pictures by Luciano Lozano
Basically, a book not too dissimilar from Raul Colon’s Imagine. A girl goes to the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art and discovers that the statues and paintings have a mischievous streak a mile wide. Soon, not just the girl but her classmates, and even her teacher, are taking objects from the pictures and parading around with them. If you can peer at the teeny tiny type on the publication page then you’ll see what each of these masterpieces are. It would have been nice if they’d made these credits a bit larger and, perhaps, added a snapshot of what they actually looked life, but whatchagonnado?
Migrants by Issa Watanabe
The darkest book on this list today. Just as the title implies, this is a book about a variety of animal migrants. Their journey is harsh. Many do not survive. And coming up from behind, small and unimposing, is a sympathetic figure of Death. The Death that follows behind reminded me quite a lot of the specter from Duck, Death and the Tulip. Same sorrowful countenance. Same understanding. This book doesn’t exactly have a happy ending. It has an ending that isn’t terrible. Tread softly.
One Little Bag: An Amazing Journey by Henry Cole
As a parent I did not pay a lot of attention to paper bags until I had kids. Suddenly they were lifesavers. And I have tried saving them, to a certain extent, but they just get so darned wrinkly. Cole’s wordless tale of the strangely long lifespan of a single paper bag may strain at the tensile strength of your belief that such a thing could last so long (a couple pieces of tape stand as the sole evidence that the bag has lasted for three generations) but if you put your quizzical nature on hold then you have to admit that Cole sticks the landing with this title. In his Author’s Note he points out that this book is truly about sustainability, more than anything else. He says that when he was a kid he reused a single paper bag seven hundred times. So really this is a sustainability book more than anything else. It’s just done with Micron ink pens alone, so that’s neat. A restrained, sustained wordless title.
One Summer Up North by John Owens
The spiritual companion to the aforementioned Hike by Pete Oswald. Like that book it features a family going out into the wilderness. The difference is that Owens is a little more site specific. Published by the University of Minnesota Press, this is an exploration of the Boundary Waters on the Minnesota-Canada border. More specifically, it’s the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (commonly called the BWCA or BWCAW). Essentially, you paddle and portage (carry your vessel and its contents across the portage in multiple trips) your way across lakes and streams. There are more than a thousand of those bodies of water up there. Again, this is one of those books that does a great job of telling kids to unplug their devices without bopping them over the head with the message. And while I think the cozy scene of the family in the tent in the rain in their coats looks a bit like those moments in Calvin & Hobbes when the dad would force his family on wilderness trips, the spirit of the thing is so pure that you’d be hard pressed not to want to try it on your own after you finished reading. You know how you can use this book? Read it to your younger children after telling them you’re going camping. Caveat: May raise expectations too high.
The Paper Boat: A Refugee Story by Thao Lam
Tough but more hopeful than the previously mentioned Migrants. Lam tells an autobiographical wordless tale of her family’s escape from Vietnam in 1980. Cut paper and paint render a difficult storyline accessible for even the youngest of readers. I’d really appreciate a couple more reads on this. Recently I read an interview with Roger Sutton who said that some wordless picture books, “feel too much like a puzzle, on purpose. The challenge is to figure out what’s going on. ” That’s sort of how I felt about this book. As an adult I had a hard time figuring out what was going on, until I read the Author’s Note at the end. That gave me an appreciation for what Lam was attempting to accomplish here. If we’re looking for refugee #ownvoices titles, this is pretty darn good. The ant sequence takes away a lot of the horror a young child might feel. Give it a gander.
The Wanderer by Peter Van Den Ende
A little paper boat goes on an epic journey across the sea in this wordless marvel of visual storytelling. Reminds me so much of David Wiesner’s Flotsam, I can’t even begin to tell you. This is another Dutch import and honestly maybe this belongs in the comics and graphic novels section. I say that because it’s this dreamy, wordless story that follows a little paper boat through all kinds of surreal, wonderful moments and places. This import was brought to us by Arthur A. Levine, the same guy that brought America Shaun Tan’s The Arrival. I was reminded of Tan’s art more than once here. As I read it to my kids we began to pick up on all kinds of tiny details. I enjoyed discussing various theories with them about one character or another. This is a book you can get lost in for vast amounts of time. Stunning.
What a Masterpiece! by Riccardo Guasco
A book that may require that you read what it’s about before you read it cold. This little wordless import from Italy (Fun Italian Title: Che capolavoro!) follows a single boy as he weaves his way in and out of various famous (and maybe not quite so famous) works of art. A lot of these spreads are quite clever, as when the boy sleepily makes his way to Duchamp’s Fountain, his shadow spreading behind him like a Giacometti statue as the light comes in through a Mondrian window. Happily, there’s an extensive section at the back that identifies every single piece, from the recognizable M.C. Escher and Modigliani to the lesser known, and rather awesome, Niki de Saint Phalle. Banksy even makes an appearance. I guess he finally attained “masterpiece” status. I don’t know that the plot will make anyone coo, but as a supplement to an art study (or even a trip to the museum) this book works mighty well.
Window by Marion Arbona
Wow! Sheer stupefying levels of details are at work in this little wordless wonder. Arbona, born in France but resident of Canada, lets her pen go wild with this book of magnificent speculation. A bespectacled girl with double braids walks past a myriad number of windows on her way home. Open their gatefolds and you can see the impossible things she’s imagining may lurk on the other side. Part of the delight of the book is when she disappears into the gutter of the book (I honestly thought it was a publishing gaff when I first saw it) and appears in her own room. Only, the room has all kinds of elements you saw in the previous imaginings. It’s wonderfully clever and entirely black and white. Black and white AND wordless AND full of gatefolds? Who knew classy could ever be this fun?
Want to see other lists? Check out what happened this month!
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 – Unconventional Children’s Books
December 18 – Easy Books & Early Chapter Books
December 19 – Comics & Graphic Novels
December 20 – Older Funny Books
December 21 – Science Fiction Books
December 22 – Fantasy Books
December 23 – Informational Fiction
December 24 – American History
December 25 – Science & Nature Books
December 26 – Unique Biographies
December 27 – Nonfiction Picture Books
December 28 – Nonfiction Books for Older Readers
December 29 – Best Audiobooks for Kids
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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