Wordless stories – more than just picture books

Sep 23, 2019

Often, our first experiences of artwork are drawings or paintings in children’s story books. Babies and toddlers listen as the story is read to them and look at the pictures. Gradually the pictures start to make sense and children connect the visuals, the words and reality. But do we always need words?

Every picture tells a story

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to know what babies and toddlers are thinking as you watch them ‘read’ picture books for themselves! They don’t use words yet but they intently take in the images. As children get older we help them to recognise that the words we are saying, as we read the story, are actually represented by the squiggles on the page that make text. Gradually their language skills and word knowledge increase as does their experience of the world. Pictures can start to take on more meaning.

An eye world

In a strongly visual world, where we are bombarded with images (often on screens), being able to make sense of pictures is a daily necessity. Being able to interpret not just the obvious meaning but sometimes the hidden or inferred meaning can be a challenge. Is there more to it than what first meets the eye?

Observational skills

Looking at children’s picture books, there can often be extra detail that has perhaps been added to enhance the overall visual appeal or maybe it is to offer more to the story than just what the words tell us. If there are no words, there is an opportunity to create our own version of events.

Do we slow down and observe carefully, analysing and reflecting on what we see? It’s a good skill to develop, not just when looking at books but in the world around us. Can you find things that you would have glanced over normally? What do different coloured leaves tell us? Why are there little, regular markings on the dirt path in front of us?

Experiences influence interpretations

Our ability to interpret what we see changes and grows with time and experience. So wordless stories can mean different things to different people. Just as text books vary in complexity and therefore appropriateness for readers, these picture books can be simple through to intensely detailed and sophisticated. Just because it is a picture book does not mean it is intended for young audiences!

Books for older children can take on a cartoon strip format with action building frame by frame. They may also contain multiple threads or storylines, similar to chapters with complex plots - all without words.

Examples of wordless stories

Here are just a few examples of wordless stories. Some have an introduction to set the scene or a blurb on the inside of the book’s dust jacket. Others leave it all up to the ‘reader’. With the help of 6 year old girls, Imogen and Molly, and an 8 year old boy, Oscar, we reflected on why we liked some of these more than others.

The chicken thief by Beatrice Rodriguez
Amanda’s butterfly by Nick Butterworth
Journey by Aaron Becker
Flotsam by David Wiesner
The hero of little street by Gregory Rogers
Mirror by Jeannie Baker
Whatley’s Quest by Bruce Whatley

Reflections of children

Imogen seemed to identify with the main character in Amanda’s Butterfly who was interacting with her soft toys as if they were real. The pictures of the fairy with the girl appealed to her too. She liked the setting for these pictures, being the backyard and nature.

The natural, outdoor settings of a forest and beach were partly why she liked The Chicken Thief too, along with animals as characters. Her experiences with, and love of playing outside and animals obviously influenced her thinking. The bear being the boat in the ocean for the others to sit on, made her laugh and she commented that she liked pictures and stories that were funny.

She didn’t like the dark picture of the ‘monster’ character - the bad guy - in The hero of little street. Being on the front cover, this book was not even going to be considered.

Molly seemed to ‘read’ a lot into the pictures. Her immediate reaction to The Chicken Thief was to reassure me - “It’s OK. It’s got a good ending”. She noticed the expressions on the animals’ faces and how the action poses helped tell the story. This story appealed to the children because it went against concepts they had come to believe: foxes eat chickens (being owners of chooks on a farm)! Bears aren’t boats, was another example. Both gave them warm fuzzies! A dose of serotonin - a happy feeling.

Oscar, being older and with different interests, preferred The hero of little street and Flotsam. He liked the comic strip style and action of the hero, skim ‘reading’ through the pictures to gain the meaning. The plot was more involved and he was able to identify scenarios that were more sophisticated. He pointed out the large pictures in Flotsam, reflective of a boy using magnifying glasses, microscopes and binoculars to see things in finer detail - pictures reflective of the concepts. These pictures are also created with water colours - apt for a story where objects are washed up on the shore.

In both these stories there is an element of fantasy. The hero makes friends with a dog that jumps out of a painting in an art gallery. In Flotsam, an old camera shows images of make-believe worlds under the sea. This imaginary aspect adds to the appeal for children.

Journey uses the power of imagination to the extreme. A little girl with a red crayon is lonely so she draws things that take her to make-believe worlds: through a door, in a boat, with a balloon… Eventually she follows a bluebird and discovers a boy with a blue crayon. Drawing and imagination made her happy and found her a friend, a kindred spirit.

This was my favourite wordless story with very little colour other than the red crayon drawing the escapes for the little girl. She was not always placed in a setting either - just her on the blank page drawing a way out or on… The way the illustrator planned and presented each aspect reflected the feelings and loneliness of the girl. Adult appreciation of picture books will be different. As we think aloud, share our depth of experiences and awareness of possibilities children can grow in their own understandings of the meanings in artwork.

Mirror and Quest require broader life experiences. Some of the concepts are formed through our studies of geography and history. Quest has a page per letter of the alphabet with the aim to identify objects in the picture that start with that letter - obviously requires a certain knowledge of vocabulary as well as worldly experiences. But the hunt can make it fun - like Where’s Wally! Some of the drawings used elements of caricature to exaggerate features. There is a feeling of strength with the form, lines and colour used.

Mirror has two stories back-to-back or back-to-front! One storyline is about a boy in Australia whose family needs a new carpet. The mirror storyline, starting at the back of the book, is about a boy who lives in Morocco and his family makes carpets. The pictures are made from fabrics and then a photograph taken to make the book. Very clever! Again, the way the pictures are created subtly reflects the content.

Artists as authors

So as artists, as illustrators, what becomes important when creating pictures that are going to tell a story? How can that dose of serotonin be induced? Or is the intent to spike an adrenaline rush - a touch of fear, apprehension, excited anticipation? What entices the viewer to ‘read’ on? There seem to be combinations of factors involved - and you can’t please everyone, all the time!

When drawing to tell a story:
* include facial expressions to help readers know how characters are feeling
* consider poses with arms and legs to show action
* use the background to develop the setting and the weather
* experiment with colours, contrasts and textures to build a mood or atmosphere
* be imaginative to create situations that may not be realistic: something magical
* add playful extras to add a touch of humour
* exaggerate striking features to create caricatures
* be mindful of the overall balance and visual appeal of your artwork.

What are some of the stories that might be behind pictures you’ve created in Artventure? Perhaps you could combine skills you’ve developed in one art lesson, with skills in another to make your own wordless story.

Teacher and Artventure Blogger