Wordless Books


Pete Oswald

Pete Oswald, an American illustrator and animator, describes his wordless picturebook Hike as a ‘love letter to nature’. But the book is also an homage to family life and parental love.

The story centres around two characters: the father and the child. Oswald says he wanted the younger character to have universal accessibility, so the child is deliberately genderless, though the origins of the story are loosely based on the illustrator’s own memories of various father-and-son outings.

The fictional father is clearly a loving parent and the close bond between him and his child is evident in all his actions, from a gentle wake-up call to practical support in difficult situations.

Spread from Hike by Pete Oswald

Throughout the book there are clues as to what this family is like. For instance the large detached house and big car on the title page suggest it is comfortably middle class, while objects within the home, particularly in the child’s bedroom, indicate a liking for outdoor pursuits, animals and nature.

Using multiple photo references, the artist started the illustrations with rough black-and-white hand-drawn sketches that enabled him ‘to figure out the story and the different beats’. He then moved on to various digital processes, including scanning watercolour and gouache brush strokes to add a tactile quality to the pictures.

Spread from Hike by Pete Oswald

Dramatically the action takes place over the course of one day, with the changing colour of the sky underscoring the time frame. At dawn it is pink, at midday bright blue, at dusk soft purple, and at night dark and starry.

This progression follows the arc of the story, in which the child and the father go on a carefully paced journey, which involves a demanding hike that eventually reaches its climax with the planting of a tree.

The book’s format reflects the nature of the story, as Oswald explains that its tall shape echoes the vertical qualities of the climb during the hike. A variety of viewpoints are shown – sometimes we see the characters side-on, sometimes from behind, sometimes from in front and sometimes from an aerial perspective (as can be seen below). The colour palette is gentle and incorporates various soft shades of green, brown and blue that suggest a natural environment.


Spread from Hike by Pete Oswald

The portrayal of the forest is vivid and, as well as trees, a variety of wildlife is shown. A fox can be seen, as can a small bird with eggs in its nest and a larger bird carrying twigs. Later geese fly by in formation, a woodpecker taps into a tree and an eagle soars overhead. There are moments of discovery, too, for instance when a feather is found and animal tracks are spotted.

The images are a mix of large pictures, smaller vignettes and individual cut-outs, and these typically reflect differences in time and space. For instance the larger pics often indicate an substantial time period, such as a long car journey, or an expansive space, as in this scene of the waterfall. Smaller vignettes are often more personal and may have shorter time periods of, say, minutes to enjoy a shared snack.

Spread from Hike by Pete Oswald

Although there is no separate verbal text, there are occasional sound words, such as MIAOW, ZIP, CLICK and MUNCH, and these add an element of aural dynamism to the images.

There are also examples of what the academic Maria Nikolajeva calls ‘intraiconic text’, that is words written on objects featured within the illustrations. For example, in the child’s bedroom, words can be seen on the posters, book titles, snack pack and the book describing ‘How to Plant a Tree’.

Spread from Hike by Pete Oswald

The story has a strong rhythm, with alternating periods of challenge and calm. For example a dangerous log walk is followed by peaceful contemplation of the waterfall; a steep climb is followed by an awe-inspiring view across the mountain; the planting of the tree is followed by a fun photo-taking session; the long descent is followed by a hot drink in the car; and finally the journey home is followed by milk and cookies on the sofa.

Tension is suggested through devices such as the donning of helmets for the harder part of the hike, the increasing steepness of the terrain, or the child’s obvious anxiety about walking across the log. Humour is shown through the playful actions of the family’s cat, a snowball fight and affectionate pats on the head.

Spread from Hike by Pete Oswald

The planting of the tree sapling is the highlight of the story and the taking of the photograph afterwards emphasises the sense of achievement felt by both the child and the father.

The photo is for the photo album, which the duo have on their laps in the final spread. In this we get a glimpse of the wider family as, on the very last page, we see close-ups of four photos that show parents and children planting trees together in different eras. These photos also subtly show that the family was once white but is now mixed race.

Spread from Hike by Pete Oswald

The title Hike on the cover is shown as four painted letters, set at right angles to the author credit. This forms an illustration in itself – one that both provides a tantalising foretaste of scenes to come and highlights the main theme by using the letters as ‘boulders’ to scale. Potential danger is even suggested by the falling bits of scree.

Oswald, who has a family background of camping, hiking and exploring, wants to pass on his love of the outdoors to a new generation of children. He says that ‘nature puts the universe in perspective’, and that ‘changing where you are can change who you are’.

This stunning and sensitive book should help achieve the artist’s stated aim of encouraging young people to get out in the fresh air and discover the beauty of the natural world.