Wednesday, 2 August 2017


The idea of a book without words ‘written’ by a writer seems pretty bizarre but right now it's what I want to do. There’s something all empowering and inclusive about a wordless picture book. Pictures reach out and flood the mind in a way words can’t for a young or foreign language child.

By themselves pictures are a form of ‘storying’. They were our first form of communication when man made handprints of ochre and ground charcoal across cave walls. They are also the first form of a child’s communication and connection to the world. In the beginning just the head and feet representation and then the extensions of fingers and toes and hair, and finally the base line and the skyline. This is ME! Here I am! I’m in this world!

So a wordless picture book is a pretty direct and powerful way of engaging anyone. Books like Clown and The Snowman have been around for decades but it's good to see new ones coming out and to see publishers getting behind them. Right now Tiny Owl Publishing have begun a campaign on Facebook on wordless picture books. For the latest post see here.

And wordless picture books can engage older readers. The pace of reading a wordless book is different to one where text leads and determines when the pages will be turned. Wordless books invite older readers to reflect and pause and stare and take the story in their own direction.

Everyone has favourites. Here are some of mine together with some new more recent ones in alphabetical order by author. Perhaps you can add your own favourites.


ZOOM by Istvan Banyai is so cleverly done. A page will zoom out detail featured on the previous page and so the layers build from billboards to posters and stamps. When I was talking to Year 3 student teachers at Roehampton Uni, a Geography lecturer said it was a book he constantly brought to the attention of his students for classroom use as it covered the world.

JOURNEY by Aaron Becker, is the first of a trilogy, that follows a lonely girl on her journey as she escapes the boredom of her bedroom into a magical world. 
Watch this fascinating short video about how the book was made. 

A fascinating insight. Quest is the second book of the series by Aaron Becker while Return concludes the trilogy.

WAVE – by Korean artist Suzy Lee. In this evocative wordless book, internationally acclaimed artist Lee tells the story of a little girl's day at the beach. Stunning in their simplicity, the illustrations, in just two shades of colour, create a vibrant story full of playfulness and laughter. 

SHADOW – Suzy Lee A dark attic. A light bulb. An imaginative little girl. Internationally acclaimed artist Suzy Lee uses these simple elements to create a visual tour de force that perfectly captures the joy of creative play and celebrates the power of imagination. Stunning in their simplicity, Lee's illustrations, in just two shades of colour, present an adventure that begins and ends with the click of a light bulb. 

And Suzy Lee in THE REVENGE OF THE RABBITS sets a sinister tone when rabbits take over the night world and threaten a driver in the dark. Interesting use of the driver's mirror to show the size of the band of rabbits. 


CHALK by Bill Thompson. Three children discover a magical bag of chalk on a rainy day. They begin to draw…and then…magic! They draw the sun, butterflies, and a dinosaur that amazingly come to life. Children will never feel the same about the playground after they experience this astounding wordless picture book and the power of the imagination. Bill Thomson has embraced traditional painting techniques and meticulously painted each illustration, using acrylics and coloured pen in a super realistic style. I wonder if it would have been more interesting because of the title, if some chalkiness showed through instead of the flat acrylic colours. 

THE ARRIVAL by Shaun Tan invites readers to consider what is happening and where the story is set. Its a perfect book for the older reader. Who are the characters? Why are they strange? Why are some things so out of proportion? Why are there strange structures and animals in an otherwise ordinary setting? Why is the story told in sepia? What is the feeling? Are we seeing someone coming to visit or going away? Now more than any time, with the diaspora of people through the world, this book seems the right one to ponder and discuss.

The same questioning approach can be applied to his RULES OF SUMMER. Not strictly a wordless picture book, but the words of the rules are so few that they don’t tell the full story of the illustrations. Through the juxtaposition of size against immense alien landscapes and massive blocks of concrete, the artwork talks of a disjointed friendship, a sense of being alone in the world despite having a friend, through the torrid heat of summer.

THE TREE HOUSE by Marije Tolman & Ronald Tolman. A journey of discovery and friendship as two bears welcome others to their treehouse. It has the feeling of the tree being Noah’s Ark as it fills up with all the animals. Beautifully illustrated with a dreamlike repetition until inevitably the space becomes too crowded. 

Flood by Alvaro F. Villa. With intensely coloured, artwork, the illustrations depict the effects of a devastating flood on a family and their home in this wordless and startlingly beautiful picture book. Argentinean illustrator Villa depicts a small house near an inland body of water. While a mother and her two children play, the father glances skyward with concern. Dark clouds barrel toward the house swallowing up the eerily yellow sky. While The Treehouse is quietly still, this book is full of movement and tumult.

Except for the father and daughter Tolman team, not one of these wordless picture books are 'written' by anyone other than the illustrator. Is it possible for a writer to write a wordless picture book? Are there any? And how is the initial idea sold to a publisher without images? Photographs? Collages? Stick figures? Or by sheer power of description and imagination? It would be interesting to know.  

Twitter: @dihofmeyr
Latest book: My Daddy is a Silly Monkey illustrated by Carol Thompson, published by Janetta Otterbarry Books.
Soon to come: The Glassmaker's Daughter illustrated by Jane Ray, published by Frances Lincoln


Pippa Goodhart said...

What beautiful and powerful books, Dianne! Wonderful ... and I'm now going to have to buy a couple of them. In answer to your question, yes, authors do sometimes get to 'write' wordless picture books. I've just done one for the first strand of a new OUP reading series, Story Sparks. Children can usually 'read' pictures before they can read words, so a simple wordless pictorial story allows them to practice book reading with success from the start.

Penny Dolan said...

Thanks, Dianne. What a treat! These titles are all such powerful stories as well as celebrating the variety of style and subject matter. I feel sure we'll see an increase in such titles too, given how easily a wordless book reaches across the global market.

Well done, Pippa, with your wordless Story Spark book. Even if writers can't illustrate well enough, they are able to "see" and plan the story structure told in the - eventual - pictures.

Sue Purkiss said...

These all look marvellous! Thanks, Di.

Katherine Langrish said...

Philippe DuPasquier's 'Our House on the Hill', and Jeannie Baker's 'Window'"

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Thanks everyone. I don't know 'Our House on the Hill" but will now search for it. I commented on Sassies Facebook about Jeannie Baker's 'Window' which again I've never physically held in my hand. Are your bookshelves like mine... bulging? I'm now vowing for every book I buy, I have to give one away!

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Candy Gourlay has shared these U-Tube videos that she herself made on some wordless pic books.
Here is Barbara Lehman's "The Red Book"
"Changes Changes" by Pat Hutchins
and "Waterloo and Trafalgar" All worth watching for some idea of the books and brilliantly filmed.

Canzonett said...

Any of Rotraut Susanne Berner's "Season" wimmelbooks (spring, summer, fall, winter, night). Thé Tjong-Khing's "Cake" books. "Les oiseaux" by Germano Zullo and Albertine. "Avant Après" by Anne-Margot Ramstein and Matthias Aregui. Many, many German "wimmelbooks".

Canzonett said...

Oh, and David Wiesner's "Flotsam", of course!

David Thorpe said...

A fabulous article. I love Shaun Tan's work. I bought Arrival in French, the title being (in French) 'There, where went our fathers' which is much more evocative. It's about the experience of a child's father emigrating to another land where everything seems alien. Other than the title, of course, there is no other change, it being wordless!

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

I haven'r ever seen the French copy David... 'La ou vont nos peres' but yes how beautifully evocative. I've just looked on Google & the other translations are more direct. So thank you for this... its a lovely snippet.
And Canzonett I don't know the books you mentioned so will do some fast research... thank you! I had 'Flotsam' on the list because I think its very clever and striking in its illustrations but in the end I'm afraid getting all those images was taking so much time and I was working late at night to beat my scheduled deadline! I've just looked quickly at the images for 'Avant Aprés'... so fresh... the forest ones remind me of Hockney's trees... crisp planes of colour. Lovely. Thank you!