The Joy of Perusing Pictures: A Reading List of Wordless Picture Books
Eva Moskowitz Recommends Books by David Wiesner, Henry Cole, Alexandra Day, and More
Lately, there’s been a lot of attention on how children learn to read, and I’m heartened that phonics is making a comeback. But sounding out words (also called “decoding”) can be laborious for young readers. As the mother of three and a veteran educator who believes passionately that a love of reading is foundational to a child’s success in school and life, I often recommend wordless books to parents of young “pre-readers” as well as older reluctant readers because these books are so accessible. They free children to use their imaginations to “read” the book without needing words to tell them what is happening.
You might think that a “wordless book” is just another name for ordinary “picture books,” but the selection I offer below is anything but ordinary. In teaching children to read and fostering their love of reading, the importance of choosing high-quality literature for them cannot be overstated.
The books listed here represent some of the most creative and captivating storytelling experiences available to young children. Many of these books are true works of art that present enchanting landscapes and richly imagined, magical worlds. The illustrations have a surreal quality that fascinates children and adults alike.
Without the need to decode the words, children build their reasoning and comprehension skills as they “read” the illustrations, discover details and clues, and infer what is happening on the page. Instead of you reading to your child, your child can tell you the story as they deduce it. The reading experience is more of a two-way conversation, which you can encourage with thoughtful questions: “What are the characters thinking and feeling? What are the clues that tell you that?” This can be empowering for them and a nice change of pace for you!
For example, the large, detailed watercolors in David Wiesner’s Tuesday, the first book on the list, take readers on a fantastical night-time journey of frogs riding on magic carpets of lily pads into the homes and backyards of a nearby town. Each page captures a surreal scene, both familiar and fantasy—a pajama-clad midnight snacker catching sight of the airborne amphibians in mid-bite, an old woman dosing in the glow of her tv while the frogs waft by, one gleefully flicking its tongue at her remote. Each page has so many details to discover and ponder. Figuring out the story taking place on this particular Tuesday will delight and activate your child’s imagination.
Having your child tell you the story can also lead to more complex conversation and promote more sophisticated vocabulary—because they are not restricted by words on the page to narrate the story. Children also gain confidence and independence as they determine the story they are seeing, and articulate it.
Children love exploring wordless books. By encouraging your child to “read” these books to you, you are helping them begin the process of constructing stories in their head from information on a page. Their attention to detail grows, and they develop a passion for books and get excited about trying to read for themselves.
Here are some terrific wordless or nearly wordless books. They all feature wonderful illustrations and richly imagined characters and stories that will provide you and your child hours (if not years!) of of engaging discussions:
David Wiesner, Tuesday
The first of his books to be awarded a Caldecott medal, Tuesday begins “Tuesday evening, around eight” as a bunch of comical-looking frogs levitate from a murky lily pond and take flight, scattering mischief and mayhem (and leaving a trail of inexplicable lily pads) that have detectives puzzling over “who done it.” The real surprise is the foreshadowing of what’s to come next Tuesday! For ages three and up.
David Wiesner, Flotsam
Another Caldecott winner, Flotsam explores delightful underwater mysteries and surprising perspectives of images supposedly caught on a camera that washes ashore. Ages three to seven.
David Wiesner, Sector 7
Yet another Caldecott-winning adventure, this one about a young boy who is whisked away by a mischievous cloud during a field trip to the Empire State Building and visits Sector 7, from which clouds are produced and dispatched.It’s a funny, touching story about art, friendship, and the weather. Ages five and up.
John S. Goodall, Creepy Castle
Young children enjoy this classic tale of good over evil as they follow two mice—a prince and princess—who happen upon a mysterious medieval castle and become trapped inside. Told through marvelously detailed watercolors and half pages that flip to reveal a shift in the narrative, this critically acclaimed story is a favorite of many families. Ages five to six.
Henry Cole, Unspoken: A Story from the Underground Railroad
Drawn in monochrome pencil on rough-textured paper, this Civil War story narrates the surprise encounter between a young farm girl and a runaway slave hiding in her family’s barn. Winner of multiple awards, including New York Times’ Best Illustrated Children’s Books, Unspoken has an austere, haunting visual tone that evokes the emotional response of both the girl and the slave, represented by a singular eye peeking from behind corn stalks or a knothole in the barn wall. A complex story of one girl’s moral dilemma told with spare beauty. Ages seven to ten.
Appealing to both younger and older kids, Aaron Becker’s captivating illustrations and story line pull you into each of the three volumes of this trilogy. Even young children have no problem narrating the stories that come to life in these magical illustrations. These books are such favorites at Success Academy that we have a copy in each of our eighty-plus first-grade classroom lending libraries.
Alexandra Day, Good Dog, Carl
First published in 1985, this classic tells the story of a dog named Carl who looks after a baby. Children love explaining the predicaments baby Madeline gets herself into, and how this favorite Rottweiler comes to the rescue, every time. Almost forty years later, twenty-four Carl books have been published, with over six million books in print.
Shaun Tan, The Arrival
Sublimely illustrated in vivid sepia and monochrome tones, The Arrival is an allegorical immigrant story of a man who leaves his wife and child in an impoverished town, seeking better prospects in an unknown country on the other side of a vast ocean. Ages twelve and up.
Raymond Briggs, The Snowman
A little boy rushes out into the wintry day to build a snowman, which comes alive in his dreams that night. This story of friendship as well as loss, beautifully evoked in Briggs’ illustrations, is best experienced while snuggling together with your little one. Ages four and up.
Bill Thomson, Chalk
Three children find a bag of magical chalk at the playground on a rainy day, and their drawings come to life, sparking a tale that is both charming and terrifying. Your child will be pulled into this magical masterpiece of visual story-telling—amazing paintings in acrylics and colored pencil. Ages four to seven.
A+ Parenting: The Surprisingly Fun Guide to Raising Surprisingly Smart Kids by Eva Moskowitz is available via Harvest.