IBBY’s Silent Books: Wordless picture books speak loud in the library

1709 Silent books main shelfIf you visited the library during September you will have seen, just beyond the Help Point desk, an array of children’s picture books displayed face on. They were of all shapes and sizes, from miniature to massive, and represented many styles of illustration from trendy retro-looking block prints to soft watercolours and bright collages. Some opened right to left and some left to right, and they had titles in a variety of languages and several different scripts.

But open them up and the differences faded. Suddenly what was striking was what united them – no words.

These books formed IBBY’s touring exhibition Silent Books: Final Destination Lampedusa (Libri Senza Parole: Destinazione Lampedusa). The exhibition resulted from a project in 2013 to create a library on Lampedusa for both Italian children and the children from other countries arriving across the Mediterranean. In view of the many languages spoken, a collection of wordless books could clearly not be more appropriate, and IBBY Italia put out a call to IBBY branches around the world for the best wordless picture book publishing from their countries. A member of the jury responsible for selecting the books, Sophie Van der Linden, comments:

No form of reading is more universal and at the same time more personal than a picture story. You have to have seen kids pick up these books over and over again and comment on them with their friends, taking pride in pointing out hidden details and the way things logically follow on from one another; and above all, you have to have experienced the fabulous silence that surrounds them when they read this kind of book, to really believe it. Source

1709 Silent books in boxWhen the books arrived at the IOE in two grey boxes there was already a story to read. The labels on the boxes, like those on a battered suitcase, told of their most recent travels, from Belgium, Dublin and Newcastle. The books had a well-loved look to them; some a little battered with a few repairs here and there, which spoke even more about their history and the previous readers who had handled and learnt from them.

Some might think that the idea of a book without words is a contradiction, but as these books demonstrated in so many different ways, an absence of words does not mean an absence of plot or characters. Pictures can tell stories powerfully, sometimes even two stories at the same time like the delightful Bramenjam (Blackberry Jam) where a couple’s quest to produce their own jam takes place in the main image, while another story happens in a picture frame on the wall.

IOE’s Sue McGonigle has recently written about the value of wordless picture books in the classroom for publisher Tiny Owl:

One of the reasons for the increased popularity of wordless picture books is the development of a broader view of what reading is, what can be read and what it means to be literate in the 21st century. It is now widely recognised that we read pictures as well as words and that illustrations can communicate ideas and tell stories very powerfully. Source

Mariella Bertelli, librarian and storyteller with experience from Lampedusa and coordinator of the Silent Books tour in Canada, lists some of the ways these books can be used:

The wordless books generate an interest in exploring what a story can be. I discovered that the stories can:

  • Tell a tale with a beginning, middle and an end
  • Be playful and open the way for games, improvisation and guessing
  • Prompt discussions about diversity, differences and new perspectives
  • Throw up new words, sentences, associations
  • Pave the way for imaginative journeys
  • Inspire interpretations and discussions about art and illustrations         Source

1709 Silent books staff by shelvesDuring the month they were with us the Silent Books attracted much attention. In addition to being browsed by library users they were the focus of a student book group visit and a staff book group session where members chose a title that appealed to them and presented it to the rest of the group. The books also formed the core of the first session for our PGCE Primary Children’s Literature Specialism where they were greeted with great enthusiasm. Students looked at the books in small groups and chose one to present to the class. For some of the books this was easier than for others – some had a clear and simple narrative like the delightful story of a pig trying to have a bath in the midst of a very troublesome family (La Porte (The Door) by Michel Van Zeveren), whereas others contained a more complex tale like Suzy Lee’s Mirror, where a little girl’s joyously dancing reflection discovers a life of its own and the mirror has to be broken for order to be restored. In some cases there was a distinctly surreal storyline, where readers are likely to interpret different tales, like Bente Olesen Nyström’s Hr. Alting (Mr Everything).

1709 Silent books pgce cropped1709 Silent books pgce close up cropped

Some of the books were loved for their characters – the black and white cat who follows a red flying fish from cover to cover in Il Mare (The Sea) by Marianne Dubuc was a particular favourite. Others were picked out for the way they played with the structure of the book, like Hamin va Hamaan (Both This and That) where flaps allowed images to change or Jeannie Baker’s Mirror where the passage of a day is depicted in Baker’s wonderful trademark collages, one version showing an Australian family and opening right to left, while bound with it and opening left to right is a parallel story set in Morocco.

The exhibition also received a visit from UCL’s MA in Library and Information Studies students (amongst them students from school and public library backgrounds) and later in the term, inspired by the exhibition, a collection of our own wordless picture books will be visiting a BA Education Studies class working on film making. Many of the wordless picture books have much to demonstrate about how framing and points of view in still images contribute to storytelling. Shaun Tan’s remarkable The Arrival is one – it must be said particularly brilliant – example.

At the end of September the books went back into their grey boxes to wing their way to Cambridge, and at the end of the year they apparently leave the country for more distant travels. But it feels as though their impact will live on, in an understanding that books without words can actually tell a very loud story, and that stories, and the physical books that contain them, can cross boundaries both geographical and cultural. If you would like to know more about the project please see the IBBY Silent Books website. Full details of the Silent Books referred to are listed here. If you would like to explore the wordless picture books held in our own Curriculum Resources collection please go to UCL Explore and use the search term ‘stories without words’.

About Sally Perry

Curriculum Resources librarian at UCL Institute of Education Newsam Library and Archives
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