I spent the morning unpacking several boxes of new books. It’s one of my favorite tasks of the year–all those shiny new covers, each suggesting 1000 ways they could be shared with kids. A gorgeous picture books about Alexander Calder will be perfect for the art teacher introducing sculpture. There’s a contingent of (yes, mostly male) kids who are just going to flip over the new series of books on snakes and the biographies of NASCAR drivers. And a couple of copies of The Butterfly House and Monarch and Milkweed should make the third grade unit on butterflies even richer.
What really caught my eye today, though, were the wordless and nearly wordless picture books. Wordless stories offer a perfect opportunity for kids to invent stories, to try out the cadence and delivery of the storytelling voice, and to use new vocabulary. Using pictures as clues to unfamiliar words is an important strategy for new readers. Young kids love these; our school library has some well worn copies of the immortal Mercer Meyer’s A Boy, a Dog, and a Frog; older kids love poring over the details of David Wiesner’s Free Fall and Tuesday. And children’s publishers have given us some magnificent new titles recently.
The top of my list is the charming, softly colored The Wave, by Suzy Lee, in which a little girl interacts with a playful wave during a visit to the beach. The story is a perfect choice for an ocean storytime or a unit on water. With a funny, comic-book feel to the pictures, Bow-Wow Bugs a Bug will pull in the early primary school set. Author Mark Newgarden draws (yeah, pun intended) us in to the silly and unexpectedly sophisticated story of a dog who follows a bug. Falling in the “nearly wordless” category are the Wow! books by Robert Neubecker. The stories feature exuberant, enthusiastic Izzy, exploring schools, cities, and America. Wow! City and Wow! School! can be “read” by the pre-literate child because the pictures give plenty of clues to the text–a page that says, “Wow! Books!” shows a busy group of kids, all with books in hand. (Young kids reading Wow! America! need some grown-up help, since “Capitol”, for example, isn’t in every child’s vocabulary.)
My favorite wordless books of the last few years are five Owly books by Andy Runton. The stories feature Owly the owl and his animal friends; their adventures are illustrated comic-book style, several panels per page, with the occasional full-page spread. Children can easily decipher the story from the illustrations, especially from the expressions on the character’s faces. “Dialog” appears in speech bubbles above the characters’ heads, but–and here’s the best part–it’s mostly pictures, not text. When Owly is surprised, the speech bubble will have only an exclamation point in it. When the little worm is asking about his parents, we see a speech bubble with a question mark and little pictures of Ma and Pa Worm. The books are as long as many grade-school chapter books–100 pages or more–and require a longer attention span and therefore an older audience than The Wave or the Wow! books. This makes them a perfect choice for kids who aren’t quite ready for chapter-length books but are like, totally done, Mrs. Gordon, with the baby books! on the picture book shelves. My first graders ate them up–whenever they could get them away from the second and third graders.
Wordless pictures books are a valuable addition to classrooms and library shelves. Pick one up and hand it to a child. If you ask nicely, he might tell you a story.