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Tiny Owl recently launched a campaign to celebrate the importance and beauty of wordless picture books. We wanted to investigate some intriguing questions – why are wordless picture books important? Do they fill a gap that books with words can’t fill? Are their messages more universal? Do they aid literacy? Or is it just that they’re so beautiful to look at?

We contacted experts in all kinds of areas of the book industry, from authors and illustrators to booksellers and journalists, as well as teachers and parents, to ask them for their thoughts. They were given this question:

Wordless picture books are becoming more popular with people of all ages. Why do you think this is?

Here are three more responses, from John Shelley, Sara Netherway and Elli Woollard.


John Shelley*:

The best wordless books get to the heart of a story

I think there are several reasons, firstly their ability to cross borders and cultures without the need for translations, though this has always been the case and wouldn’t explain a current rise in popularity. I would imagine the way people view books now has had an effect – the internet and digital books has made the sharing of wordless books much easier, and they are particularly suited to the international cross-border sharing of the Net without a doubt. But I also think there’s a slow but steady acceptance of more image based story lines within the public, thanks to a wider acceptance of graphic novels and visually sophisticated picture books. The best wordless books are a little like the art of mime, they get to the heart of story, seeing something happen rather than being told through words has a unique power to affect the reader’s response to narrative, I think publishers (and the public!) are beginning to accept that illustrators are storytellers as much as the writers, whether the title is wordless or not. This surely has had an effect on the rise of wordless books.

*John Shelley is an illustrator who studied in Manchester, and lived and worked in Japan for over 20 years before returning to the UK. Most of his work is based around pen and ink drawing, coloured either in watercolour or digitally.


Sara Netherway*:

Primitive and mystical

When I think about wordless picture books, I think about early cave paintings and it reminds me of how our ancestors communicated and the storytelling tradition. For me there’s something wonderfully primitive and mystical in telling stories that way.

*Sara Netherway is a freelance illustrator, trained in fine art, who used to work as a graphic and surface pattern designer. She creates images with rich textures and detailing, and lives on the Isle of Wight.


Elli Woollard*:

Books don’t need text in order to be beautiful and meaningful

I hate to say this, but I will: I grew up disliking wordless picture books. I’m ashamed of it now, of course, but when I was a child the attitude in my household was that illustrations in books, while wonderful for babies and small children, became redundant once you had progressed onto ‘real’ books. Desperate to show how grown-up I was in my reading habits, I chose books without pictures as soon as I was able. And if picture books with some text were ‘for babies’, those without words were even lower down in my perception.

Thankfully when I had my own children my attitudes changed. Perhaps it is because today’s illustrators have a higher profile and are therefore better able to challenge the snobbery that still exists in some quarters (witness, for example, Sarah McIntyre’s tireless ‘pictures mean business’ campaign for greater illustrator recognition). Or perhaps there has been a general societal recognition of visual literacy. But certainly by the time my children were born, illustration seemed to be on the rise, and wordless picture books were gaining ascendancy.

The first wordless picture book I remember reading was Jeannie Baker’s ‘Window’, a silent plea for the conservation of nature in Australia. A friend had given it to my third child, and I started showing it to him fully suspecting that neither of us would get much out of it. Before I had finished it, tears were streaming down my face. It was this book, more than any other, that taught me the power of pictures alone. It taught me that pictures could be read just as well as words can. It taught me that books do not need text in order to be beautiful and meaningful, and that curling up with a child and helping them interpret pictures is just as wonderful a way of bonding as reading printed words. And any remaining notions of wordless picture books being solely for young children were thrown out a couple of years later when I came across Aaron Becker’s ‘Journey’, and saw how my then 9 year-old son reacted to it.

We are constantly ‘reading’ the world we are in. We are interpreting the expressions on people’s faces, their body language. Words are wonderful, but they are not always present, or necessary. Wordless picture books deserve to be celebrated.

*Elli Woollard is a writer of picture books, poems and other things (most of them silly). She lives in London with her husband, children and pets.


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