31 Days, 31 Books: 2021 Wordless Picture Books
The wordless picture book is an artistic challenge. The illustrator that attempts it isn’t making things easy on themselves. They know what they’re getting into, to a point. Of course, not every wordless book is “written” by the artist. On today’s round-up of some of the best wordless titles of 2021 we examine two books with separate authors and three without. It’s a fascinating collection of different styles, tastes, storylines, and methods. Put another way, some of my favorites of the year.
2021 Wordless Picture Books
Every Little Kindness by Marta Bartolj
I guess it’s not really a “translation” if the book hasn’t any words, right? The kooky thing is that I got all the way to the end of the book, glanced at Bartolj’s bio, and only then realized that this title comes to us via Slovenia. Looking back, I realized that, yes indeed, the buildings in this city don’t really look all that American, but Bartolj has a skilled universality to her wordless storytelling that transcends nations. Another reason I didn’t realize it came from overseas? It’s nicely multi-racial. And not to paint our European/East European picture books with a broad brush, but I’d say that the bulk of them usually feature all-white casts. This book shows that this doesn’t have to be the case. The plot of this story is very simple. Essentially it begins with a woman who has lost her dog. The point of view then shifts as other people have small misfortunes that are corrected by the kindness of others. The woman gives a street musician an apple. This is seen by a man that views a litterer. He cleans up the trash and a boy sees this. He in turn helps out a girl who can’t afford a balloon. It’s practically black and white, with this lovely gray watercolor wash. Red is the sole color that pops up, and it really helps to direct your eye to the next person you follow. It’s sweet and lovely and a great example of how to make a keen wordless book with heart.
Grasshopper by Tatiana Ukhova
An unsentimental look at nature, in all its beauty and ugliness. When a girl captures a grasshopper to save it, and watches the world around her operate entirely by its own rules. The phrase about nature “red in tooth and claw” comes to mind when I read this wordless title. Do yourself a favor and don’t read the plot description on the bookflap until after you’ve gone through it on your own. The less you know about it going in, the more strange and interesting it becomes. When I was a kid I was always a bit shocked when the natural world didn’t line up with the Disney-esque fantasy I’d been sold. The fish in my fishtank ate one another. Cute baby birds in nests were victims to (of all things) squirrels! So I totally identify with the girl in this story PARTICULARLY as it applies to that poor caterpillar. This is the very rare picture book I’ve ever seen that acknowledges that the natural world can be gross and weird and still be wonderful and beautiful. You just can’t have all the good and just sweep the bad under the rug. This is nature, ugliness and all.
Midnight Fair by Gideon Sterer, ill. Mariachiara Di Giorgio
[Previously seen on the list Caldenotts]
When the fair has closed and the night has come, what happens to the merry-go-rounds, rides, and games? Join a troop of intrepid animal adventurers in this beautifully rendered wordless romp. How strange is it that I’ve never seen an outdoor carnival represented accurately in a picture book before? This book is so evocative, you can practically smell the popcorn and elephant ears. Sometimes wordless books require a lot of energy to read and understand. This one feels effortless. There are small storylines couched within larger ones. I could read and reread this hundreds of times and always find something new. Honestly, what it really reminded me of was Tuesday by David Wiesner with its surreal nighttime hijinks. My sole regret is that the illustrator lives in Rome and cannot win herself a Caldecott.
Oscar’s Tower of Flowers by Lauren Tobia
While his mom travels, Oscar finds peace growing flowers and plants. Soon he has so many that he decides to share them with his appreciative community. I think I had a distinct advantage going into this of not fully realizing that the artist was Lauren Tobia. After seeing her work with Atinuke over the years, I inadvertently became a lifelong fan. Plus, wordless books are difficult things to create and this book really does do a great job with its storytelling. At first this looked to me like a story about a kid with two moms, but on closer inspection I see that he’s just temporarily moving into the other woman’s home. Still, this is a really cool slice of life with an incredibly strong sense of place.
Over the Shop by JonArno Lawson, ill. Qin Leng
A wordless story about a girl, her grandparent, and the family they build when two strangers come to rent the apartment above their shop. Okay. That’s it. If the ALA doesn’t change the rules on who gets to win a Caldecott then I am personally walking over there and twisting their arms myself. You know how you suspect that a good illustrator has a really good book inside of them and that it’s just waiting to come out? I’ve been watching Qin Leng for years, just hoping that she’d get paired with the right text. Who knew that all along she had to be paired with no text at all? I have no idea what JonArno Lawson actually did when he wrote this wordless book but whatever it was, it works. This is an infinitely gentle tale about building community where you find it. Lawson dedicates it to “trans activists of all ages” and you can read that into the images, though I didn’t realize that until some other librarians pointed it out to me. I mean, this book is just flat out great. Deserves more reads.
Love wordless titles? Then check out some lists from previous years:
And here’s what else is on the docket 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 – Books with a Message
December 11 – Fabulous Photography
December 12 – Wordless Picture Books
December 13 – Translated Titles
December 14 – Fairy Tales / Folktales / Religious Tales
December 15 – Unconventional Children’s Books
December 16 – Middle Grade Novels
December 17 – Poetry Books
December 18 – Easy Books & Early Chapter Books
December 19 – Older Funny Books
December 20 – Science Fiction Books
December 21 – Fantasy Books
December 22 – Informational Fiction
December 23 – American History
December 24 – Science & Nature Books
December 25 – Autobiographies *NEW TOPIC!*
December 26 – Biographies
December 27 – Nonfiction Books for Older Readers
December 28 – Nonfiction Picture Books
December 29 – Best Audiobooks for Kids
December 30 – Comics & Graphic 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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