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As Betsy indicated in last Friday’s post, wordless picture books have a unique place in the development of a child’s sense of story, sequence, and detail. And they seem to be coming into their own more and more. This year saw the publication of several acclaimed wordless (or near-wordless) books, all of which in our post today attracted at least one star in the big-five book-review journals. They cover a wide range of subjects, and also—please note—a wide range of ages. Just because it’s wordless doesn’t mean it’s appropriate for babies. With no further ado, let’s roll ‘em out:
David Weisner carved out a secure corner in the wordless-book scene with the flying frogs of Tuesday (1991). There’s some flying in Mr. Wuffles! also, in which the spoiled protagonist doesn’t share. Mr. Wuffles’ indulgent owner continually provides him with new toys, but the snooty cat ignores all of them. Except that little spaceship . . . . Sharp-eyed readers will notice that the spaceship is the only toy without a price tag. That’s because—it’s real! The tiny green spacemen inside are interrupted in their reconnaissance when Mr. Wuffles takes an interest in them, and see their chance for escape only when he dozes off. Spotting a convenient mouse hole, they sneak inside the walls and discover 1) “cave paintings” of a cat doing battle with other strange creatures and 2) the creatures themselves, all possessing six legs and antennae. Since aliens and insects (mostly ants, with one ladybug) are approximately the same size they form an alliance against their mutual enemy, sealed with a Cheez-it. What happens next will cheer any bug-lover, but the main charm (and value) of this almost-wordless story is watching friendships develop and guessing what the respective alien/insect dialogue balloons mean. Alien language is shown in geometric shapes, while insects speak in a series of tick marks. Even opposite species can be friends, and Mr. Wuffles is the odd man out. The story reminds me of a famous Twilight Zone episode and I can’t help wondering if that’s where Mr. Weisner found his inspiration. Either way, it’s a lot of fun.
Hank Finds an Egg, by Rebecca Dudley. Peter Pauper, 2013, 36 pages. Age/interest level: 2-6
This book is a nice addition to Easter, but since I may be giving it as a Christmas gift, I’ll review it now. Hank, a little stuffed creature something tween a monkey and a teddy bear, comes across a tiny white egg on the leafy ground of his forest home. What to do? Pass on by, or take responsibility for the life within? He spots the nest it came from, on a branch too high to reach. Placing the egg in his tiny woven backpack, Hank explores several ways to get it back in the nest, but when night falls he must return to his homey clearing in the forest, build a fire, and sleep on the problem. The story has a happy ending that pre-readers can easily follow, but what will fascinate them—and their parents—are the series of painstakingly constructed dioramas that serve as illustration. Handmade down to the last leaf, expertly lighted and photographed, each picture conveys the rawness and tenderness of spring, and the joy of kindness rewarded.
As the story opens, a young girl tries to engage her family, but everyone is too busy for her. So she turns to her trusty red marker and doesn’t seem surprised when the door she draws on her bedroom wall opens to a brightly-colored world of imagination. On her ensuring journey she doesn’t forget to take the marker, and a good thing too—besides providing transportation to exotic castles and skyways, it also comes in handy for narrow escapes. Each double-page spread provides plenty of detail for poring over and talking about; it’s a many-look picture book. Grandmas will be reminded of Harold and his Purple Crayon, especially at the end. Journey is a nice tribute to a classic, but it also breaks new ground.
A Long Way Away: a Two-Way Story, by Frank Viva. Little, Brown, 2013, 36 pages. Age/interest level: 3-7.
Here’s another imaginative journey. It begins in the inky depths of the ocean, where our traveling friend (who resembles a turnip) is sound asleep. But in the next two pages, he’s “Getting ready” with sticklike arms extended. As the pages turn he zooms upward with unimaginable speed—from the water to the surface and into earth’s friendly skies. Then beyond earth’s crowded atmosphere into inky space. Even in the darkest reaches, our friend travels along a beam of light, all the way to what appears to be home and family. But the story’s not over; we can retrace the journey all the way back to the ocean by simply turning the pages in the other direction and reading the words backwards. The unusual sideways format facilitates the reverse route and the spare text makes it easy for a three-year-old to “read” the book for himself after you’ve read it a few times. Illustrations are in flat shades of red, blue, yellow, cream, and black, making for simple but mind-bending shapes and contrasts—notice the spacemen and the deep-sea divers in similar suits, and the floating fishes and swimming aliens.
It’s hard to imagine rain doing flood-level damage, especially in Midwestern settings where farmers generally struggle with drought more than too much water. Kids who have never experienced a flood will get a good idea of the devastation suffered by an ordinary family whose home sweet home—full of memories, pictures, and personal touches—is destroyed by water. In one two-page spread the house seems to recoil in terror from the furious storm headed its way. The family’s helplessness increases as they pile up sandbags, pack up their vehicle and leave their home to the mercy of the elements. But the elements appear to have no mercy—the double-page depiction of water smashing into the house could be genuinely scary for small children, causing them to fear heavy thunderstorms for months thereafter. Older kids however can be taught to appreciate the varieties of weather and the awesome Power behind it all (see Job 38:25-30).
Thunderstorm, by Arthur Geisert. Enchanted Lion, 2013, 32 pages. Age/interest level: 4-8.
With clouds swirling and bursting over this mid-American landscape, it’s no time to be loading a utility trailer with hay bales, but that’s what the family is doing on the cover. On the title page, they’re taking off with a full trailer pulled by a red pickup. The pictures form a continuous illustration, originally 415 inches long, so as you turn the page, the right edge leads directly into the left edge. The time is continuous also, from 12:15 on a summer Saturday to 6:15 that evening. As we follow the truck on its winding route, the wind picks up, frightened birds take to the air and cutaway views show animals taking refuge in burrows and trees. Nature wreaks more and more havoc, as lightening severs power lines and the wind spins off little tornadoes and smashes barns. The people in the truck don’t seem terribly excited by it all—and why do they take shelter under a bridge?? Didn’t they ever hear of a flash flood? It should be pointed out that this is dangerous; otherwise the drama and the unique format will keep the pages turning.
A very friendly bluebird bonds with an unhappy schoolboy in this story, presented in frames and simple shapes composed mostly of white, blue, and gray. The bird takes a shine to the little boy, who lives in an urban setting of an earlier generation—perhaps 1950’s. On a walk with his friend in Central Park, the boy has an unpleasant experience with bullies. Bad enough for him, but in attempting to save the boy from harm, the little bird takes a hit. It’s too much—the boy’s one friend, now gone. But then, a splash of color! And an ending that might be interpreted as resurrection or at least an afterlife. Meant to be a sensitive exploration of bullying, injustice, and death, it might be too sad for some kids, but a helpful way to introduce the subject of death for others.
Unspoken: A Story from the Underground Railroad, by Henry Cole. Scholastic, 2012, 40 pages. Age/interest level: 5-up.
Henry Cole grew up in a dairy farm in Loudon County, Virginia, midway between Manassas and Sharpsburg, Maryland (both the scene of famous battles). He remembers sitting at the table with extended family during holidays, as elderly relatives recalled the stories of their elderly relatives, who were directly involved in the Civil War. His personal connection gives an intimacy and immediacy to this wordless book, which the reader can share. “Because I made only the pictures,” he writes in the preface, “I’m hoping you will write the words and make the story your own—filling in all that has been unspoken.” Younger kids will need a little background—from the opening pages it’s clear there’s a war going on, but what is it about? And when the young daughter of the household goes to gather eggs, who is that hiding among the cornstalks? With just a little basic information, the kids can take it from there, filling in relationships, conversations and motivations from the visual clues. Where is Father? What do the grandparents know? Why do the grownups look so unhappy? Small’s textured charcoal drawings capture simple but telling details that create a spare, tense, ultimately hopeful story.
As you’ve noticed, Redeemed Reader is celebrating National Picture Book Month! Be sure to check our related posts on the home page (and in the next two weeks), and follow up on the many lovely links. Also, come back tomorrow for our very special Holiday Book Store list and podcast!