Text Optional: Visual Storytelling with Wordless Picturebooks

Author photo: Jennifer Gibson Jennifer Gibson is a Visiting Assistant Librarian at the State University of New York at Cortland’s Memorial Library, as well as an illustrator. Her work may be seen at www.jgibsonillustration.com.

Wordless picturebooks are on the rise and are increasingly revered by readers and critics. In many countries, including the United States, wordless picturebooks have become a sub-genre unto themselves—a publishing trend resulting in author/illustrators who even specialize in this type of book.

A current search on worldcat.org for juvenile books with the Subject Heading “Stories Without Words,” yielded just over two thousand, with a notable increase in the latter half of the twentieth century leading into the twenty-first.

In Wonderfully Wordless, an ambitious reader’s advisory of sorts for several types of wordless books, author William Martin gleans expert worldwide opinion to select the best in contemporary wordless books, including picturebooks.1 Many of the wordless picturebook makers highlighted, such as three-time Caldecott winner David Wiesner (see sidebar), have been informed by the rich history of wordless books for adults, artists’ books, and graphic novels.2

Creating picturebooks without words for children, however, has its roots in educational aids to simply encourage younger children to speak about a story, until the 1970s, when wordless picturebooks shifted their emphasis to the unlimited possibilities in graphic narration.3 Images have become more than simple didactic aids prompting young readers to speak, and instead reach new levels of artistry within the picturebook’s thirty-two-page format. The visual sophistication of the author’s/illustrator’s work allows readers of all ages to interpret the story for themselves, whether orally, in writing, or in a different form of creative response.

Literacy Use: Putting Words to the Wordless

While wordless picturebooks are excellent ways to introduce preschoolers to the book’s format and design and to book handling and sequencing of a story,4 the wordless picturebook is no longer just for beginning readers. While emphasizing middle-grade readers, Judith Cassady notes that any grade level can benefit from exposure to wordless picturebooks for the inherent creativity involved in developing one’s own interpretation of the story.5 She summarizes:

The use of wordless books can encourage reluctant and struggling readers in middle school and junior high to read, develop vocabulary, and make the connection between written and spoken language. Older readers seem to respond to wordless books because they are so visually appealing and because they often involve cleverly developed plots. But best of all, these books seem to counter struggling readers’ tendency to focus on the words to a degree that interferes with their being able to make sense of the story and predict outcomes.6
Wordless Books covers

Wordless books by Shaun Tan, David Wiesner, and Mitsumasa Anno in SUNY Cortland’s Teaching Materials Center collection.

Photo courtesy of Jennifer Gibson.

A straightforward approach to using wordless books in the library or classroom is to invite readers to provide their own dialogue or narrative to accompany the pictures according to their level. Limiters such as a maximum word count, or even a list of vocabulary words to utilize in their story, could enrich the activity.7 Tuten-Puckett and Richey suggest further opportunities for many lessons, such as students conducting their own self-directed library research on the topics presented in wordless books.8 Author/illustrator websites sometimes contain supplementary activities for readers to accompany wordless books as well.

Beyond Linguistic and Cultural Barriers

Researchers in education and language-learning are recognizing the potential of wordless picturebooks as teaching tools specifically for second language learners. As for any readers, interpretation of the story plays a key role. Parents who speak a second language can become more involved in their child’s education by “authoring” wordless books for their children. Open-ended questions about wordless stories allow young language learners to respond to the story in their own words and build confidence in the new language. Flatley and Rutland note that

Because wordless picturebooks tell a story without the use of words, the linguistically and culturally different students can create text that is in their natural language pattern and based upon their prior knowledge and schemata.9

Wordless books can also provide a starting point for sharing immigrant experiences. Two wordless books interpreting the theme of migration (Wiesner’s Flotsam and Shaun Tan’s The Arrival) used in the international research project Visual Journeys: Understanding Immigrant Children’s Responses to the Visual Image in Contemporary Picturebooks benefited immigrant children in Scotland in more than literacy development:10

What this project did was more than involve the children in developing and using their critical literacy skills, it also created a safe space for the children to begin to share their stories of immigration, not by asking them outright, but through weeks of nurturing a trusting relationship with each other as we read the wordless texts.11

Creators of wordless texts are from many countries and cultures, and researching their backgrounds and artistic heritages can provide librarians and teachers with the opportunity for cross-cultural experiences among diverse young readers. In Crossover Picturebooks, Beckett highlights wordless books created by Mitsumasa Anno in the tradition of Japanese scroll painting, as just one example.12 Whether in story plot, technical artistry, or page layout, culture can be an interpretive talking point.

Perfect for Visual Literacy

While there is an ever-growing body of research on wordless picturebooks’ multiple contributions to childhood literacy, there is less material, but much potential, concerning the format’s capacity for visual literacy. Defined as “how people perceive, evaluate, apply, and create conceptual visual representations,”13 visual literacy’s importance to K–12 education is emphasized in an increasingly visual, cinematographic, and digital environment.14

Tuten-Puckett and Richey outline supplemental cross-disciplinary activities, many of them art-related, that librarians and classroom teachers could easily incorporate after introducing a wordless book.15 Book reviews for illustration will typically highlight the medium and tone of a book’s artwork, whether wordless or not, and are great to share with K–12 students or give as an assignment to write their own review emphasizing visual elements. The inclusion of Art Notes on the copyright page gives important details for illustration processes, such as technique and choice of medium.16

Exactly how a wordless book tells a story via pictures, and provides didactic artistic appreciation to its readers, are scholarly topics worth exploring, especially considering the richness and variety of the contemporary wordless picturebook genre. Palette, perspective, design, point of view, atmosphere, and characterization, to name a few visual elements, are no longer secondary to the text, but actually tell a story.

How that artistry works can be explored by an illustrator’s perspective of wordless books about his craft. As Wiesner notes in the introduction to Wordless/Almost Wordless Picturebooks, “Because the images are the “text,” everything in them must contribute not only to the advancement of the plot but to revealing the emotions and feelings of the characters.”17

Growing Wordless Collections Have Much to Offer

For librarians, increasing the collection of wordless books and suggesting them to readers benefits many. Whether patrons are new arrivals to this country, beginning or reluctant readers, or anyone who simply appreciates an interesting plot and a spectacular array of art, wordless books can enhance literacy, cross borders, and provide a new way of seeing the world.

Luckily, there is no sign that wordless books will decrease in production or readership. In 2013, the School for Visual Arts in New York City developed a Visual Narrative Master’s program where the most recent class’s senior projects included wordless picturebooks.18 Master’s theses on wordless books are being written as scholarship on the subject continues.19 There are additional wordless book activities for readers to appreciate online (too many to mention in just one article), and of course, for librarians to recommend. &


  1. William Patrick Martin, Wonderfully Wordless: The 500 Most Recommended Graphic Novels and Picture Books (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), 1–15.
  2. Ibid., 1.
  3. Sandra L. Beckett, Crossover Picturebooks: A Genre for All Ages (New York: Routledge, 2012), 81–85.
  4. Mary Renck Jalongo, Denise Dragich, Natalie K. Conrad, and Ann Zhang, “Using Wordless Picture Books to Support Emergent Literacy,” Early Childhood Education Journal 29, no. 3 (Spring 2002): 168–171.
  5. Judith K. Cassady, “Wordless Books: No-Risk Tools for Inclusive Middle-Grade Classrooms,” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 41, no. 6 (March 1998): 428.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Carolyn S. Brodie, “Wordless Picture Books: Creative Learning Ideas,” School Library Monthly 28, no. 1 (September 2011): 47.
  8. Katharyn E. Tuten-Puckett and Virginia H. Richey, Using Wordless Picturebooks: Authors and Activities (Englewood, CO: Teacher Ideas Press, 1993), 6.
  9. Joannis Kelly Flatley and Adele Ducharme Rutland, “Using Wordless Picture Books to Teach Linguistically/Culturally Different Students,” The Reading Teacher 40, no. 3 (December 1986): 277.
  10. Evelyn Arizpe, “Visual Journeys with Immigrant Readers: Minority Voices Create Words for Wordless Picturebooks,” International Board on Books for Young People, accessed Dec. 20, 2015, www.ibby.org/index.php?id=1066&L=2.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Beckett, Crossover Picturebooks, 85.
  13. Laura Lundin, “Visual Literacy,” 2013, Salem Press Encyclopedia Research Starters, accessed Feb. 1, 2016, EBSCOhost.
  14. Dawnene D. Hassett and Melissa B. Schieble, “Finding Space and Time for the Visual in K-12 Literacy Instruction,” The English Journal 97, no. 1 (September 2007): 62–63.
  15. Tuten-Puckett and Richey, Using Wordless Picturebooks, 5.
  16. Monica Carnesi, “Looking for Art Notes,” Horn Book Magazine 90, no. 2 (2014): 85–89.
  17. Virginia H. Richey and Katharyn E. Tuten-Puckett, Wordless/Almost Wordless Picturebooks: A Guide (Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited, 1992): vii–viii.
  18. Joan McCabe, “Re: Wordless Picturebook Article- Relating SVA’s Visual Storytelling MFA,” e-mail to Jennifer Gibson, January 7, 2016.
  19. Maria Carluccio, “Wordless Children’s Picture Books: A Universal Language.” (Order No. 1603016, Fashion Institute of Technology, State University of New York, 2016).


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