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How to Read a Wordless Book

Nest_Hatch_400-(bookmom)Confession: As a parent I used to hate wordless books. After a long day working on stories the onus was on me to make up another story? After the epic battle of the bath? No thank you. Give me words. I’ll read them.

But recently there have been a number of wordless picture books that have made a splash and some, even, that I’ve published (I often have the parent/publisher push). And of course, as it would happen one of my children seized on what I call an almost wordless picture book, Nest, that had to be read. By almost wordless I mean it has one word on each spread—which to me is close to wordless. The kid has good taste. It’s a beautifully designed, gorgeously illustrated book with bold illustrations.

I opened the book and paused. Where to begin? Looking at the pictures I pointed to some objects. “Oh, this is a book about a bird in a nest. See the nest?” In fact, the first word is “nest” so this was a brilliant observation on my part. Page by page, I pointed out what I thought was happening. It admittedly wasn’t much of a story, but we both enjoyed looking at the pictures. After that I figured we’d shelve it. But, no, out it came the next night with the tiny hand pushing it on my lap and the hopeful face looking up at me. (This look doesn’t just procure books in our house. It also procures ice cream, cookies, and—with this kid there is no “or”—being allowed to climb into bed with us at 3 a.m.)

Having at least some knowledge of the pictures, I clumsily made my way through the book with a bit more narrative. It seemed sufficient. Too sufficient, since it was then requested the next night. But this time I was ready. As I made up a story about the characters on the page, I started to realize that I didn’t have to be bound by the words. They could be my words, tailored to suit my child. They could be words I would suggest if I was shaping or editing the text (this thrilled me; editors are massive control freaks. And they always like to have the final edit).

Upon further examination of the art I realized there was indeed a very clear strong story woven through the art. It was the story of a baby bird growing up, first with the help of its parents and then learning to do things on its own. It’s a very obvious story, beautifully told through the illustrations about a bird ultimately leaving to build its own nest. The damn thing makes me cry every time we read it.

That’s the thing with wordless picture books: Just because they don’t have words doesn’t mean they don’t have a story. Often (almost always?) they have stronger narratives than most books with text, because they need to lead you through without the aid of words. By taking your time and looking at the pictures, the story will come out, sometimes in stages on reading after reading and sometimes at first glance, but it will come to you.

The beauty is in discovering the story in the art, and discovering it together (“What do you think is happening here?” you can ask your child). One child insisted the bird was getting ready to go to a hockey game, so one reading was about the bird getting ready for the playoff season. (I hope the editor isn’t choking right now if she is reading this.)

Over the course of a week the story evolved into our story, with my child (the one who doesn’t turn every story into a story about a hockey game) as the main character (the baby bird) and me as the mother bird. And since they were my words and our story, our version of it ends with the baby coming back to the mama’s nest. Forever.

Here are a few of our wordless and almost-wordless favorites lately: