Picking up on the picture book literacy theme running recently through Pencil Tips, I have been thinking about wordless picture books. I’m a fan of these and like to collect them. This fascination might seem a little odd on the part of a picture book author who is not herself an illustrator, but in the hands of an amazing artist, pictures can sometimes tell it all. (I also love graphic novels, and I’m sure these two interests are related.)
One category of wordless book takes a “what if” concept and catapults it into a world of fantasy. My favorite book of this type is Flotsam, by David Wiesner, a mind-bending tale in which a boy finds an old camera on the beach. The camera leads him and the reader on a fantastical visual journey beneath the sea and back in time. Two other books in this vein are The Red Book, by Barbara Lehman, and Zoom by Istvan Banyai. For some reason, all of these books have vivid red covers. They are just plain fun to share with children, and in the case of Flotsam and The Red Book, could lead to an exercise in writing a fantasy story (wordless or not) about a found object.
Other wordless books that are more plot driven. These include A Boy, a Dog, and a Frog by Mercer Mayer, Pancakes for Breakfast by Tomie dePaola, Wave by Suzie Lee, and Train Stop, also by Barbara Lehman. These books can be used for exploring the five essential elements of a story. Here are some questions to move this process along:
Characters: Who is the main character? Are there other characters in the story? What part do they play? What are some of the challenges an artist or writer faces in carrying the same characters through a story from beginning to end?
Setting: Where does the story take place? How important is the setting to that particular story? What are some devices the artist used to bring the setting to life?
Plot: A story has a beginning, middle and end. In the wordless story, which illustrations make up the beginning of the story? The middle? The end?
A story without conflict would be a big yawn. Usually, the conflict comes about because the main character has a problem to solve. What is the main character’s problem? How does he or she try to solve it? If the problem were solved immediately, there wouldn’t be much of a story. How do the illustrations build up the suspense leading to the climax of the story? Identify the climax, the place where the action becomes most exciting.
Resolution: After the climax comes the part of the story where the problem is solved. How does this happen in the story at hand? Do you think the ending was a good one? What is another way you could think of to end the story?
Creating a wordless picture book from scratch could be a great follow-on project.