Wordless books, sometimes known as silent books, have a long tradition dating back at least to the early twentieth century and include such artists as Frans Masereel and Lynd Ward, who created titles aimed principally at adults. However, when high-quality printing became easier and cheaper in the early 1960s, the picturebook market for children began to expand, and the number of wordless titles grew with it. One notable American pioneer was the artist Mercer Mayer, now famous for his A Boy, a Dog, and a Frog (1967) series.
When I began my collection I was surprised and delighted by the variety of work I discovered. I expected simple board books for babies – of which there are many, usually with single images to a page – but I also came across much longer, more narrative, comic-strip books for older children, as well as challengingly complex abstract, surreal or high-concept books for young adults. Formats proved diverse, too. There were tall books, wide books, novelty titles, and limited edition art books with delicate transparent overlays. Some were tiny, small enough to be held in the palm of one hand, others were large heavy hardbacks.
Most impressive, though, was the tremendous breadth of artistic styles, from the colourful collages of Eric Carle to the muted tones of Laëtitia Devernay’s The Conductor (2010). From the 3D constructions of Jeannie Baker’s Window (1991) to the delicate line drawings and watercolours of Edward Ardizzone and Quentin Blake. And then there were the richly detailed, highly complex, tableaux of Charles Keeping, Mitsumasa Anno and others.
Books without words offer an alternative, purely visual, way of ‘reading’. When we engage in a pictorial narrative we invest a bit of ourselves in the process, as decoding such texts means creating our own individual version of the story. The artist clearly has an idea in mind, but how we interpret the images produced, based on our own perception and life experiences, may bring forth a range of entirely new meanings.
In addition, with so many children and adults currently on the move across the world, books without words may be able to cross barriers in a way other books cannot, though there will be cultural differences. The Silent Books project on the Italian island of Lampedusa, launched by IBBY (International Board on Books for Young people) in 2012, is a worthy example of this.
Most of all, though, wordless picture books give us the opportunity, and the excuse, to immerse ourselves fully in the pictures, without the distraction of words. Many are just stunningly beautiful works of art in themselves, and for this reason alone they are worth celebrating.