It's no exaggeration to say it has taken me years to enjoy the world of wordless picture books. At first, I felt pushed outside my comfort zone without the safety net of the written word to stitch the story together. So I was always treading carefully, one page after the other. And then something clicked. After many hours spent flicking back and forth between their covers, I was finally able to positively embrace the feeling of not knowing what the next page-turn would bring. Now, I have come to a point where I love and appreciate them.
I have to admit I owe this to Sara, my three-year-old daughter, who always seems to gravitate towards wordless books for our evening story time. 'Mommy, let's read one of the 'thinking' books', she says. And I have to give it to her; every time she picks one from her bookshelf, I know I can't just mechanically recite the text while my thoughts drift away to today's events or tomorrow's errands.
Wordless books force you to be present. By removing the crutch of the written word, we don't fall as readers, but to our surprise - fly, as we gain enough perspective to design the pace of the story and choose which details to focus on. More often than not there is a logical narrative thread, but as we navigate image by image, the lack of text frees us to create our own script, which, unsurprisingly, changes almost every time. There is a fluidity to the story behind a wordless book that pulls the reader in and keeps them there, encouraging the child to engage, stay flexible to the changes the plot brings and, most importantly, ask questions. This approach helps young minds feel empowered, part of the process, designers and (why not) architects of the storyline. They essentially become co-authors.
Perhaps these are precisely the reasons behind Sara's love for this specific genre. I often notice her studying every page with wide-open eyes, as if seeing the carefully detailed graphics for the first time, every time. On other occasions, she simply giggles at seeing me slightly uncomfortable when trying to make sense of what I’m looking at (David Wiesner, you're a mind-bender).
Also, being a trilingual family, wordless books are the only ones that her father and I can 'read' in our native languages, together or separately. Since young children are developmentally egocentric, not because they're selfish but because they haven't yet developed the ability to consider other points of view, wordless books can be a wonderful introduction to the concept that we all see the world from our own unique perspective. The lack of text creates the space to explore ourselves, acknowledge other's interpretations of the world and, ultimately, reflect on the beauty of being different.
But enough words for now, here are our top 15 favourites:
1. Flotsam by David Wiesner (2006)
A young boy comes to the beach eager to collect and examine flotsam—anything floating that has been washed ashore. But nothing among his usual finds compares with the discovery of a barnacle-encrusted underwater camera with its own secrets to share . . . and to keep.
*Caldecott-winning picture book;
2. Island by Mark Janssen (2018)
Shipwreck! A father, daughter and their dog wash up on a small island. Little do the castaways know that the island isn't what it seems at all.
3. Another by Christian Robinson (2019)
A little girl wakes up to see her cat going through a portal which opened up in her room late at night. She follows, only to discover that there is a secret world where everyone has an alternate version of themselves.
*A New York Times Best Children’s Book of 2019
4. Sidewalk Flowers by JonArno Lawson (2015)
In this wordless picture book, a little girl collects wildflowers while her distracted father pays her little attention. Each flower becomes a gift, and whether the gift is noticed or ignored, both giver and recipient are transformed by their encounter. "Written" by award-winning poet JonArno Lawson and brought to life by illustrator Sydney Smith, Sidewalk Flowers is an ode to the importance of small things, small people, and small gestures.
* Winner of the Governor General's Literary Award for Children's Illustrated Book
* A New York Times Best Illustrated Children's Book of the Year
5. Seasons Gift Collection by Gerda Muller (2018)
Gerda Muller's beautiful 'seasons' board books are loved the world over. As spring arrives children play with lambs, sow seeds and paint Easter eggs. In summer they fish for tadpoles, play at the beach and eat ice-cream. By autumn the leaves have fallen and it's time to collect horse chestnuts, fly kites and make jam. In winter the snow has come and they have fun ice-skating, feeding the birds, and being cosy inside with the Christmas tree.
6. Tuesday by David Wiesner (2011)
The story begins in the early evening on a Tuesday and all is quiet at the pond. All of a sudden, the frogs begin to levitate on their lily pads and travel into a nearby town.
*Caldecott-winning picture book
7. Lines by Suzy Lee (2017)
It starts with a line. Whether made by the tip of a pencil or the blade of a skate, the magic starts there. This seemingly simple story about a young skater on a frozen pond will charm the youngest of readers while simultaneously astounding book enthusiasts of any age.
* Best Illustrated Books lists and nominated for the Hans Christian Andersen Award, the highest international honor given to children's book creators
8. Migrants by Issa Watanabe (2020)
The migrants must leave the forest. Borders are crossed, sacrifices made, loved ones are lost. It takes such courage to reach the end. At last the journey is over and the migrants arrive. This is the new place.
With forceful simplicity, Migrants narrates the journey of a group of animals leaving a leafless forest. Borders must be crossed, sacrifices made, loved ones left behind.
9. The Umbrella by Dieter Schubert (2011)
A little dog finds an umbrella in the garden on a windy day. The moment the dog picks up the umbrella, it catches the wind and pulls the dog skywards. This is the start to fantastic journey around the world. The wind carries the umbrellas and the dog all over the world, from the desert to the sea, from the jungle to the north pole.
*received the 2012 Outstanding International Best Book of the Year Award and The United States Board on Books for Young People Award
10. The Red Book by Barbara Leham (2004)
This book is about a book. A magical red book without any words. When you turn the pages you'll experience a new kind of adventure through the power of story.
* Caldecott Honor–winning picture book
11. Journey by Aaron Becker (2013)
A lonely girl draws a magic door on her bedroom wall and through it escapes into a world where wonder, adventure, and danger abound.
12. The Lion and The Mouse by Jerry Pinkney (2009)
In award-winning artist Jerry Pinkney's wordless adaptation of one of Aesop's most beloved fables, an unlikely pair learn that no act of kindness is ever wasted.
* Caldecott Honor–winning picture book
13. Spot, the Cat by Henry Cole (2016)
Follow Spot as he weaves through busy city streets, visits a farmers market, wanders into a park full of kite-flyers, and beyond. But while Spot is out on his adventure, his beloved boy owner is looking for him—seeming to just miss him every time.
14. Free Fall by David Wiesner (1988)
When he falls asleep with a book in his arms, a young boy dreams an amazing dream—about dragons, about castles, and about an unchartered, faraway land. And you can come along.
*Caldecott-winning picture book;
15. The Snowman by Raymond Briggs (1982)
A little boy rushes out into the wintry day to build a snowman, which comes alive in his dreams that night. The boy invites him home and in return is taken on a flight high above the countryside.
*Lewis Carroll Shelf Award list in 1979