If you haven’t tried a wordless picture book yet, now is a good time to leave behind the politics of language and explore
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I once stumbled on two wide-eyed children poring over a picture book in their classroom. While they were discovering the details of the story together, one was narrating it to the other in her own words. I knew they couldn’t read yet, which made it all the more fascinating to watch them understand the story through the illustrations alone. They were straying from the original plot, which is exactly why I remember it 11 years later: the vivid memory of them making the story their own, unfettered.
A page from ‘Ammachi’s Glasses’ | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement
As someone who has worked with children’s books for over a decade, I’ve met many parents and teachers who seem mildly baffled with wordless books. “No words?” they ask. With a steady and growing emphasis on teaching reading, we tend to neglect the vast potential of illustrations in developing a child’s understanding of the world. Wordless books offer infinite possibilities for children to interpret stories and decode images. In recent years though, the popularity of Ammachi’s Glasses, a wordless book by Priya Kuriyan, has been encouraging. The book captures the hilarious events that occur when an old woman is unable to find her glasses one morning, and any text would have been a distraction to its many clever details. “The feeling that a picture evokes is immediate, that gut impact, the pleasure. Sometimes, words can’t create that impact,” says Kuriyan.
My holiday edit
- 1. An Indian Beach: By Day and Night, Joëlle Jolivet: Using a limited colour palette, the book captures a beach during the day and at night in marvellous detail.
- 2. Ammama’s Sari, Nivedita Subramaniam: Through varied textures of cloth, the story explores the playful relationship between a girl and her grandmother, and introduces the concept of upcycling.
- 3. Journey, Aaron Becker: A lonely girl sets off on an incredible adventure in this exquisite book. Rooted in the power of imagination, this is perfect lockdown reading.
- 4. Summer’s Children, Anpu Varkey: Filled with a sense of wonder and languor, this is a depiction of summer, as seen through the eyes of two children.
- 5. Ikru’s First Day of School, Sunaina Coelho: A heartwarming story of a young boy’s experience of entering a school for the first time.
This makes me think of David Wiesner’s almost-wordless book, Tuesday, in which frogs fly through the sky and float through houses in the dead of the night. Strange and mysterious, it’s easy to imagine how a fantastical book like this can shape a child’s view of the night. Earlier this year, Canato Jimo won an award for his book, Snip, at the Publishing Next Industry Awards under the best children’s book category (ages 0-8). Set in Nagaland, it follows two mischievous siblings as they play with a pair of scissors. Snip is special not only because of how relatable it is, but also because of how accessible it is without the constraints of a language.
Stormy by Guojing and Time Flies by Eric Rohmann also work as a reminder of how vital it is to give illustrators more opportunities and freedom to tell their own stories. Kuriyan, who has won multiple awards for her art, has collaborated with numerous authors over the years. So what was it like to create a narrative entirely on her own, and be both the author and illustrator? “It feels more personal because you can choose the context and take inspiration from characters that you’re familiar with in real life,” she says, adding, “You can revisit things you like, things you find funny, and even genres. You can put inside jokes. It’s your voice, it’s who you are.”
Images from ‘Snip’ | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement
Freedom for illustrators
As one of the editors who worked on Snip and a guest editor for Ikru’s First Day of School, I know that telling a compelling story using illustrations alone is no easy feat. It requires illustrators to have a very nuanced understanding of sequential visual narratives. “In a wordless book, building the relationship between each frame has to be cohesive. And it’s important to have a sense of movement to engage the reader,” says Jimo, an art director at Pratham Books.
This dynamism that Jimo suggests runs through 1986 A Visit to the City Market by Manjula Padmanabhan. You are briefly transported to the bustling streets of the market, past the mangoes and watermelons, chickens, and buckets of flowers. Priya Krishnan, a senior editor at Tulika Books, says, “Wordless picture books can cross borders more easily, leaving behind the politics of language. They then become windows to different cultures.” But somehow, there seems to be this notion that wordless books are meant only for children who aren’t able to read fluently. You only have to look at Shaun Tan’s The Arrival (an immigrant’s experience) and Peter Van Den Ende’s The Wanderer (a paper boat’s adventure) to know this is untrue.
An illustration from Anpu Varkey’s ‘Summer’s Children’ | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement
Wordless books — or perhaps we need to start referring to them as word-free books — are for anyone who enjoys visual storytelling. In a world that is fixated on a child’s ability to decipher the written word, I hope that wordfree books find more of an audience.
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