How to Read a Book without Words (Out Loud)

As an art school drop out and picture book aficionado, I am always drawn to a book's illustrations above all else.  So, of course I would be drawn to a beautifully illustrated book that is all pictures. However, as a mother of a toddler and reader of story time three days a week, I need a book that will grab my audience, wether it's my son sitting in my lap or little faces looking up at me from the kid-sized benches in the Children's Department of the bookstore. "Reading" a picture book without words can be quite a challenge for any audience. Picture books without words draw the "reader" into a silent universe that is interpreted internally, but it is possible to open up this world for all listeners to share.  To "read" a wordless picture book out loud requires that the "reader," using visual cues from the the author/illustrator, create a narrative that will draw the listeners into the story and guide them through it externally. This is not always the easiest thing to do, even for someone who has read hundreds of picture books.  But, I have found that, with a little thinking ahead and attention to detail, you can draw listeners in to the book and make the story last longer than the time it takes to flip through the pages and, ultimately, make the listeners the authors of their own interpreted narrative.

David Wiesner is undoubtedly the master of visual storytelling, having won the Cadecott Medal for TuesdayThe Three Pigs and Flotsam, as well as the Caldecott Honor Award for Free Fall and Sector 7.  But, before we dive into the wordless works of David Wiesner, I want to introduce you to Barbara Lehman, author/illustrator of The Red Book, winner of the Caldecott Honor in 2005, as well as Museum TripRainstormTrainstop and The Secret Box.  Lehman and Wiesner both use watercolors to magnificently illustrate their books, but in very different ways.  Lehman employs black outlines that give her pictures a two dimensional, almost comic book feel, making her books ideal for younger children who aren't quite ready to pore over the intricate details of Weisner's work.  This isn't to say that her illustrations are simplistic. They are rich with details, crisp and colorful. And, most of all, inviting.  Readers can't help but be drawn in to Lehman's books, especially The Red Book, which is about being drawn into a book, literally!

The plots of Lehman's books are often circular, ending where they began.  The Red Book begins and ends with a nameless, red book stuck in a snowbank in a city somewhere. In between, the finder of the red book opens the pages to see another reader, on a sandy beach, who can see her, too. The story follows the city child as she devises a way to meet up with the other reader of the red book. Other than serving as a page turner, how can you "read" this book out loud, drawing younger children into the story and drawing out their imaginations? There are a few things you can do before you even open the book to begin engaging your audience. Whenever I read out loud, at home or at work, I like to say the name of the book and the name of the author and illustrator. After that, I usually open the book and start reading the story.  However, with Lehman's books, which all have the main character on the cover, I like to tell my audience that we are going to read a book without words and I need help to tell this story. Then, I ask the audience to choose a name for the main character to get us started. Gender appropriate names, or even real names, don't matter. This is about what the audience sees and thinks.  Reading a wordless book out loud requires a fine balance between audience involvement and verbal illustration enrichment on your part. As the "reader," take every opportunity to throw in adjectives when appropriate. Ask your audience to say how the main character is feeling based on his/her expression. Ask your audience what they think the main character is thinking. Use your narrative to frame input from the audience and move the story along, page by page. As an individual reader, you know where your imagination goes as you read a wordless book to yourself. When "reading" out loud to an audience, you want to engage them and have them tell you where their imaginations are going as they look at the pictures in the book. All four of Lehman's books have main characters who are alone, and maybe lonely, but who find a connection with others, which reminds me a little bit of wordless picture books themselves - the pictures are out there on their own, waiting to connect with a reader who will give words their story.

David Wiesner's books take imagination and illustration to the next level. Some of Wiesner's artwork would not be out of place hanging in a museum next to the works of Rene Magritte and Salvador Dali.  Wiesner's books are more detailed and his plots more complex than Barbara Lehman's, making for even more "reading" opportunities, but also requiring a slightly more advanced ability to understand the unfolding stories.  Of course, these stories don't need to be understood or explained to be enjoyed.  Simply looking at the beautiful, painterly illustrations with your audience and talking about the minutiae can make for an entertaining experience alone. Without words, readers (and listeners) are forced to look more closely at the illustrations, for clues and for narrative, than they would when reading a picture book with words. Words provide the cues for what to think about the story and how to look at the illustrations - without them, interpretation is up to you. Reading a book without pictures is also great practice for future museum visits and appreciation of art that hangs on the wall rather than between the pages of a book. Because of the detailed nature of Wiesner's illustrations, naming all the characters in his books might not be the best strategy, especially for the intricate Flotsam. However, this could be great fun with the more playful Sector 7 in which clouds have personalities and Tuesday in which frogs on flying lily pads have a nocturnal adventure. 

However you choose to frame  your narrative, calling attention to details and involving the listener is key to an engaged experience when reading a book without words. The way in which you call attention to and narrate the details determines the level of imagination and attention that your listeners will exhibit.  I have always been the kind of reader who pores over illustrations and points out details. When my children were infants, this was a great strategy for engaging them in the story.  While reading Goodnight Gorilla by Peggy Rathmann I would always point out the mouse with the banana, who is somewhere different on each page. Eventually, I could ask, "Where is the mouse?" and my audience would delight in showing me. Looking for details has its rewards as well, especially with author/illustrators like Peggy Rathmann, who hides characters from one book in the pages of another - see 10 Minutes till Bedtime, an almost wordless book with guest appearances by the stars of Caldecott Medal winner Officer Buckle and Gloria and the cast of Goodnight Gorilla.  Readers of the works of David Shannon can have fun searching for his dog Fergus, a little, white terrier and star of his own book, Good Boy, Fergus, hidden within illustrations of all of his books. Shannon is very creative. In another, he appears is a bit of graffiti on a desk.  

However you choose to approach the experience, reading a wordless book out loud is both challenging and rewarding, for you and your audience. Getting good at it and appreciating it means looking at it  like a muscle that needs flexing and developing. The more you work it, the more it works for you, and the more you get out of the wordless books you read. The ultimate gift of reading the wordless picture book out loud is the creativity it inspires in the listener. Wordless picture books are springboards to stories yet to be told, germinating in your children's minds.

A few other wordless picture books you shouldn't miss:

Enchanted Lion Books started a brand new series called Stories Without Words, the first four books of which are The Chicken Thief, Rooster's Revenge, Fox and Hen Together, which are created by Bèatrice Rodriguez and Ice, by the fabulous Arthur Geisert, all of which kick off this article. The fifth book in the series, Big Seed, is due early in 2012.

Eric Rohmann's Caldecott winner, My Friend Rabbit (thanks to early readers of this article for reminding me of this great book!)

Wonder Bear by newcomer Tao Nyeuand Zoom and re-Zoom by Istvan Banyai, both in paperback.

Don't forget about another favorite of mine, graphic novels, of which there are quite a few fantastic, wordless ones like these:


Z-Kids said…
I commented over at "Well Read Child" too, but I just wanted to say again, Wonderful article!

We love wordless books. Reading them is almost like 'play' since active involvement between reader/child and cild/book is naturally required. Of course you can get interactive with a word-filled book too... but it takes more conscious effort.

Some of our other favorites are Shaun Tan's "The Arrival," Eric Rohmann's "My Friend Rabbit," Peter Spier's "Noah's Ark," and this year's amazing "Wave" by Suzy Lee...

Tanya said…
Thanks for commenting on my site, too! When I read your comment I smacked myself on the head for forgetting "My Friend Rabbit" and "The Wave." I have skimmed "The Arrival" but will give it a more thorough reading asap! Thanks for reading & sharing!
Lee Wind, M.Ed. said…
Hey, so glad I came here from the Carnival. I've always wondered about the best way to read aloud a wordless picturebook - I always feel that they get short-changed in the rush to follow the visual narrative. Now I have some good tools to let my daughter steer the imagination ship while we read it together!
Tanya said…
Excellent! It's tough at first, but I think it's well worth the effort. Let me know if you come across any great wordless picture books I didn't mention in your literary travels! Happy Reading!
Anonymous said…
This is a very helpful article! I don't have any kids, just younger cousins, nieces, and nephews, but I like to share books with them when I get the chance and you've given me some great ideas about how to make reading books without words more interactive and fun for them. I'll be sure to pass this post along to their parents as well.
Tanya said…
Thanks for reading, and thanks for reading out loud to your nieces, nephews & cousins! They will remember you for it.
P. Atkins said…
You have posted a very interesting article. Keep it up!

Good Books To Read.
Tanya said…
Thanks so much for reading and commenting!
hamrickb said…
Great article! My boys are 4 and 6 years old and they love wordless books. Their favorites are The Adventures of Polo by Regis Faller and the other Polo books. It's so interesting to hear how they each interpret the pictures differently. i love to catch them reading it to themselve or each other, and hear how the story changes.
Anonymous said…
I want to read all of these now. Great list!
Tanya said…
Thanks so much! Keep your eyes peeled: I have an AMAZING new wordless picture book to add to the list. It will be reviewed here on 8/6/13 along with David Ezra Stein's new book!

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