Home Children's Beyond Words—exploring wordless picture-books

Beyond Words—exploring wordless picture-books

Ruth Ennis on the wonderful world of wordless picture-books

by Ruth Ennis

When beginning their reading journey, the first language every child understands is one of pictures. Before familiarising themselves with letters and words, they learn the language of illustration: distinguishing characters, identifying emotions, following setting changes, and more.

Visual reading is a crucial skill for any young bookworm. It allows them to contextualise and engage with the story without any language barriers. It is an incredibly accessible form of storytelling, and no type of book understands this better than wordless picture-books. 

These wordless picture-books tell stories of grand adventures across the skies and seas, they introduce us to the bravest of travellers and the gentlest of hearts, and they expose us to experiences beyond our wildest dreams—all without saying a word.

In this collection of wordless (or, in some cases, nearly wordless!) picture-books, you will find no big monologues or lengthy scene descriptions. Instead, you will find beautiful artwork filled with intricate details, sweeping landscapes, and memorable characters that can be appreciated by readers of all ages. 

The Midnight Fair by Gideon Sterer, illustrated by Mariachiara Di Giorgio (Walker Books)

The Midnight Fair is a relatively new publication that instantly feels like a timeless classic. With expert use of silhouettes and versatile watercolours, this book tells the story of what happens in a funfair when the sun goes down.

Animals of all shapes and sizes sneak into the fair, turn on the bright lights, and have the night of their lives. Deer swaying on giant swings, hedgehogs covered in sweet treats, and a particularly creative use of leaves and chestnuts as currency will have you endlessly pouring over each page, entranced by this whimsical secret world.

Each animal has its own adventure in the midnight fair, making this perfect for re-reads to make sure you don’t miss a single moment. There are plenty of humorous scenes (real animals riding the horse statues on the merry-go-round) and heart-warming scenes (a fox winning a fish as a game prize and deciding to release it into the river when the night ends). A lovely book from beginning to end. 

Dandelion’s Dream, by Yoko Tanaka

In contrast to the bright colours of The Midnight Fair, Yoko Tanaka’s Dandelion’s Dream (Walker Books) takes a very different visual approach.

A dandelion flower imagines itself as an illuminous yellow little lion. It wanders wide open fields, sails the seas, explores cities, and soars across the skies, befriending many creatures and people along the way. The pencil artwork is striking, limited to a dichromatic colour palette of greys and yellow that always highlights the lion in every scene.

As the lion watches the city lights fade into the yellow fields of dandelions, the fantasy ends, only to show the dandelion seeds begin a new adventure as they float into the sky. A short and sweet read that demonstrates Tanaka’s great skill in navigating a carefully selected colour scheme.

Journey by Aaron Becker (Walker Books)

Journey by Aaron Becker is an epic adventure picture-book with an unforgettable voyage.

Our young protagonist is frustrated when nobody in her family will play with her. When she grabs a magical crayon, she can draw anything in its vibrant red hue and it will come to life. With it, she crafts a door to a magical world, a boat to sail through a kingdom, a hot air balloon to explore the skies, and a trap door to escape from danger.

On her travels she meets a mysterious purple bird and soon discovers where it came from in an incredible and touching twist as her journey comes to an end (be sure to pay attention to the early pages for a fun easter egg!). Becker has an excellent command of scale and contrast in his illustration style, each page being a visual feast. This is a dazzling tale that is made to be a forever favourite. 

Footpath Flowers by Jon Arno Lawson, illustrated by Sydney Smith (Walker Books)

Not all journeys have to be grand in scale for them to matter, and Footpath Flowers by Jon Arno Lawson, illustrated by Sydney Smith demonstrates this beautifully.

A little girl and her dad are walking on their way home through the city. She spots various wildflowers growing in unusual places and begins to collect them into a bouquet that she later shares with people and animals she passes by.

In this otherwise black and white world, every time she picks a flower we see a hint of colour pop up, but it is only when she shares them with others do these colours bloom into life. She brightens the world around her with her generous gift of wildflowers to animals and strangers alike, and when she gifts them to her mother and siblings we finally see the world in full colour. The watercolour artwork is breath-taking, these gorgeous illustrations compliment a wonderful story perfectly.  

Chalk Eagle by Nazli Tahvili (Tiny Owl Publishing)

Chalk Eagle by Nazli Tahvili (Tiny Owl Publishing) is a charming and simple story about a boy who imagines a friend for himself.

Set in a city/suburban landscape, the boy is inspired by an eagle he spots in the skies and decides to create his own feathered friend. He draws the outline of an eagle with chalk on the roof of his home. When the eagle comes to life, he draws a version of himself to join it, and the two illustrations fly across seas and forests. With a notably textured illustration style, accomplished with silkscreen printing techniques, this adventure is certainly eye-catching. Filled with nostalgia and imagination, this will resonate with plenty of readers.

La La La by Kate DiCamillo, illustrated by Jaime Kim (Walker Books)

Bending the rules slightly for this next title, this book is restricted to the use of just one word: “La!” La La La is written by Kate DiCamillo and illustrated by Jaime Kim (Walker Books). A little girl is feeling alone and begins her search for a friend by calling out with a song of a single phrase: La! La! La!

After some fourth-wall breaks and pushing the boundaries of the liminal world she is in, the girl finds a friend in the most unlikely place; the moon. A fascinatingly abstract piece, this is an engaging read with bewitching artwork that is beaming with vibrant colour throughout.

Stop! Monsters! by Mark Janssen (Lemniscaat)

Stop! Monsters! by Mark Janssen (Lemniscaat) is another nearly-wordless picture-book, this time the single word being “stop!” Two sisters are on a mission to haul giant cogs, pipes, pots and pans to the dump, with their trusty cart. But on the way they meet lots of intimidating monsters who won’t let them pass without taking some of these large trinkets and giving them new life in the form of giant necklaces, spectacles, and even musical instruments.

This is an endlessly fun story that offers a creative twist on the idea that “one man’s trash is another man’s (or monster’s!) treasure.” The watercolours are so beautiful that even the scariest of monsters are very deserving of the massive double spreads they take over. A brilliant book, readers are sure to adore every page.

Selkie by Josephine Birch (Starfish Bay Publishing)

A personal favourite, Selkie by Josephine Birch (Starfish Bay Publishing) is a gem of a book. A fisherman accidentally captures a seal in his net, only to be pulled into the depths of the ocean himself. But everything changes when he and the seal merge together and he transforms into something truly magical.

Each stroke of pencil and paintbrush is carefully made to entice the reader with its subtle texture and wave-like movement. A gorgeously illustrated book, flooded with rich blues and greens, and masterful use of panels and parallel imagery, every page in this picture-book is a work of art. 

Migrants by Issa Watanabe (Gecko Press)

These wordless picture-books are helpful for navigating complicated and, at times, difficult subject matters. Migrants by Issa Watanabe tells the story of a variety of animals as they flee their forest home in search of refuge in new lands.

Throughout their journey, they are followed by a blue ibis bird and a childlike figure of death. The nature of the wordless picture-book is well suited for this sombre tale, particularly for the heart-breaking scenes when they attempt to escape on a boat that ultimately sinks and one of the refugees dies.

There are no words to describe the loss, and so the images of the grieving animals encapsulate the loss with great honesty. The intense, darkened background palette, and careful detail and vibrancy to each animal’s character, do great justice to articulate the realities and hardships faced through forced migration, with grace and nuance. An important story, told with sensitivity and a firm understanding of the form, this is an excellent wordless picture-book. 

The Arrival by Shaun Tan (Hodder Children’s Books)

Lastly, this list wouldn’t be complete without including the masterclass in wordless picture-books that is The Arrival by Shaun Tan. Another story of migration, about a man as he leaves his home and family in search of a safer life in a new and strange world. Here he meets other immigrants, who share their stories of how they became new arrivals to this unique city.

This book does a fantastic job describing the experience of language barriers and unfamiliar cultures. The reader soon relies on visual cues and context to navigate the story, just as much as the protagonist does. Brilliantly illustrated with sepia browns to mimic photographs, Tan creates a great sense of scale in this book.

We see snapshots of the smallest insights of individual lives, only to then zoom out and fully appreciate the landscape housing these lovely details. Every inch of this book is gripping, right down to the end pages with rows and rows of faces of new arrivals. A must read for all. 

The wordless picture-book is one of the rare mediums that is mostly suitable for readers of any age. Every reader is presented with the opportunity to bring their own interpretation to the book. They are useful tools to encourage discussions, both in schools and at home, exploring their understandings of the stories.

These exciting and versatile books are perfect for encouraging a young reader’s visual literacy but, above all else, they make for rich and memorable reading experiences.

Ruth Ennis is a children’s literature writer based in Kildare. Her writing has been included in several publications and she was awarded an Arts Council Literature Bursary in 2021 and an Agility Award in 2022.