Wordless Books

Shapes and Things

Tana Hoban

Tana Hoban (1917-2006) was an American photographer who won many awards for her work and created more than 110 books for children, many of which were wordless.

Shapes and Things was her first children’s book, and the images in it are actually black and white photograms. The dust jacket copy defines photograms as: ‘photographs made without a camera by placing an object directly on photographic paper under darkroom conditions, then exposing it to light and processing it in the same way as a photographic print.’

Spread from Shapes and Things by Tana Hoban

The book opens with a spread of simple shapes: circles, triangles, an arch and a square. But subsequently it moves on to show images of various everyday objects, such as a purse and keys, a comb, and a toothbrush and toothpaste (see below).

These are all items that children might have easily come across in their homes, but have probably never stopped to observe closely. As the reader looks at these items in the book, they look completely different, as they appear as solid white shapes that lack some of the details and definition they would have in real life.

Spread from Shapes and Things by Tana Hoban

Tana Hoban wanted children to look at everyday things and see them in a new way. And this turns the book into a sort of guessing game as children (and adults) identify the items they are seeing.

She has said that her inspiration came from asking herself: ‘What is there, right there where I am standing that I’m not seeing?’

Spread from Shapes and Things by Tana Hoban

The choice of objects is wide, ranging from jewellery and cutlery to tools and sewing equipment. An ordinary cotton reel suddenly seems luminous; a kitchen sieve shows an intricate pattern of tiny white dots. A thin row of tiny paper dolls appears to be almost dancing, while a solid toy trumpet seems unmistakably still and distinct.

Spread from Shapes and Things by Tana Hoban

Tana Hoban’s work is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York and has been displayed in various exhibitions around the world, including MoMA’s The Family of Man (1955) show.

Hoban was the elder sister of author Russell Hoban (1925-2011), creator of the ‘Frances’ series of children’s books and The Mouse and his Child, as well as works for adults, including Riddley Walker (1980).

Shapes and Things won considerable critical acclaim at the time of publication, and Hoban won many awards for her photography and books. Her work is held in many collections in America and France.