Clowning Around with Wordless Picture Books

The Clown by Quentin Blake
Category: Bookbug

A few weeks ago, I turned the tables on my children at bedtime and asked them to read me a bedtime story. My youngest is only 5, so he was understandably bemused. But when I produced a copy of Quentin Blake's wordless picture book, Clown, from the library bag, everything became clear. By 'reading', what I was actually asking them to do was tell a story of their own inspired by Blake's wonderful illustrations. By page 2, they were both in full flow.

Wordless, or 'silent' picture books are met with mixed reaction from parents and carers. Some find the lack of any fixed 'story' or narrative intimidating, whilst others just don't have the energy to bring a wordless book to life at the end of a busy day. But for some, including those with lower levels of literacy, they can be liberating; an opportunity to improvise without the confines of words on a page and to draw upon their imagination in ways that they wouldn't normally be asked to do.

According to Sue Pearce from 100 Stories Before School, the popularity of wordless picture books amongst families in Australia and New Zealand in particular may be related to their multicultural population:

'They [the picture books] are really good to share with multicultural families as they can "read " them in their own language - which is critically important - speaking to your young child in your strongest language, to grow their language, makes the development of English later much easier.'

This can certainly also be said of Scotland. Wordless books, or books with very few words, can help families share stories in their native language, but are similarly a great resource for parents learning English or teaching it to their children. 

But what I loved most about asking my children to read Clown to me was that they were both given the opportunity to beome the 'author' of the book, a role that we as readers rarely bestow on our children. As expected (and hoped) they both interpreted the illustrations in completely different ways, and their stories changed and evolved with each subsequent reading.

Jungle scene from Follow the Firefly
A great example of this also occured at a primary school in New Zealand, where a class of children were asked to write a story based on the wordless book, Follow the Firefly/Run, Rabbit, Run from Book Island, which was selected as Bookbug's Book of the Month for January (see image, left). Amazingly, every pupil gave a different interpretation of the story.

For very young children, parents or carers may need to take on a degree of this role, but even from the age of 2 or 3, you'll be amazed at how much a child can 'read' from a picture or scene. There are so many visual texts in their everyday lives - be it television programmes, children's magazines, or even apps for tablets or mobile telephones - that their ability to make sense of the visual elements of a picture book are already well developed. 

And of course, engaging children in an activity like this is a brilliant way of encouraging their vocabulary, stretching their imaginations, and learning the art of storytelling - all skills which will support their literacy further down the line.

They say that a picture paints a thousand words, and this is certainly the case in the world of picture books. The quality of illustration is increasingly a driver of a book's commercial success, and I, for one, am hoping to see a greater focus on wordless books in this market for children.

If you're keen to explore a wordless picture book with your little one, here's a selection of great Wordless Picture Books titles to look out for.