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Quick Guide to Children's Books 2: Silent books

July 24, 2018 by Nóra Wünsch-Nagy

The world of children's literature is an enchanting place which often looks like a colourful maze with imaginary creatures in fantastic worlds. These creatures and worlds are mostly versions of our own realities, and through them we can learn more about our own worlds, and through the words and the images in the stories we can explore our own lives, reflecting on its beauties and dealing with its difficulties.

When you enter a book shop, these mini worlds which we call picture books are well-organized on shelves, usually labelled and categorized in a systematic way. There are picture books, silent books, illustrated books, comics, graphic novels, poetry books and a many more formats. What is the difference between these books? What are their main characteristics?

In this new series we will explore the world of children's books together, providing definitions and examples for each main type of books. In this second part we enter the magical world of silent books.

Wave wordless picture book Suzy Lee
Wave. Written and illustrated by Suzy Lee. Published by Chronicle Books. © Suzy Lee.

What are silent books?

Silent books, or wordless picture books, are just what they say: picture books without any words. The story is told through the pictures, and they often come in beautiful and creative editions. Silent books have their origins in frescoes and cave paintings, and  call on our ability to make meaning through the images that surround us. An important aspect of pictures and visual narratives is that they are culturally formed and not everyone will make the same meaning from the same pictures.

The power and wonder of wordless picture books lie in their silence. Since they communicate through the pictures, we can write as many stories as we can think of when we look at them. Every reading and every reader brings out a new story. When reading a wordless picture book, we practise thinking and emotional skills just as well as important literacy skills. At the same time we also have an aesthetically pleasing, entertaining and sometimes challenging experience.

Skills development

Both in first and second language teaching these books are excellent resources, priceless investments. Silent books are often artistic products which can appeal to both young and adult readers. They tap many skills which are essential to language development.

First of all, silent books are ideal for shared reading, and through shared reading, you can practise observation and joint storytelling as well as offering support for weaker readers.

Since they do not prescribe any story, these books have great conversational potential. The visually rich pages can inspire adult learners to respond to the pictures and create stories they would not normally think of. They are also not constrained by language and can be used with beginners (to teach new words and practise present tenses) to advanced-level students (making hypotheses and using complex structures to describe and retell the narrative).

When you are making stories based on the pictures, you are practising listening and comprehension skills. By asking many open-ended questions, you can initiate longer conversations and ask readers to reflect more on what they are saying.

In the classroom

After you have carefully selected the books (check the theme and the complexity of the story), start by previewing, observing and browsing these books. Then you can elicit and write down some words and expressions that you and your students think of when looking at the pictures.

Then let your students create their own narratives, either in speaking or in writing. When they are writing, they will need more scaffolding and structure, and you will also have to provide more language support (linking words, time phrases, narrative structures). When they are speaking, they can rely more on their own style. There is not one single right way of telling a story based on a silent book.

Silent books for refugees

In response to the number of refugees and asylum seekers arriving on the Italian island of Lampedusa, IBBY (International Board on Books for Young People) launched its Silent Books project in 2012 to provide a library of wordless picture books that can be enjoyed by both refugee and local children in a special library which was opened to host the collection. IBBY Sweden has produced a downloadable booklet with ideas on using silent books with children.

Where can you learn more about silent books?

We recommend these books if you would like to know more about wordless picture books. This list is far from being complete, but it is a good starting point for you research.

  • Arizpe, E., Colomer, T. & Martínez-Roldán, C. (2015). Visual Journeys through Wordless Narratives. London: Bloomsbury.
  • Arizpe, E. & Styles, M. (2003). Children Reading Pictures. Interpreting Visual Texts. Abingdon: Routledge Falmer.
  • Evans, J. (2015). Challenging and controversial picturebooks: Creative and critical responses to visual texts. London: Routledge.
  • Evans, J. (2009). Talking beyond the page: Reading and responding to picture books. London: Routledge.
  • Evans, J. (1998). What's in the picture?: Responding to illustrations in picture books. London: P. Chapman Pub. Ltd.
  • Nikolajeva, M. & Scott, C. (2006). How Picturebooks Work. Abingdon: Routledge.
  • Nodelmann, P. (1988). Words About Pictures. The Narrative Art of Children’s Picture Books. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press.
  • Serafini, F. (2013). Reading the Visual: An Introduction to Teaching Multimodal Literacies. New York: Teachers College Press.
  • Terrusi, M. (2017). Meraviglie mute. Rome: Carocci. (In Italian)

Our favourite silent books

Here are some of our favourite silent books. Share yours with us!

  • Wave by Suzy Lee
  • Flotsam by David Wiesner
  • The Snowman by Raymond Briggs
  • The Arrival by Shaun Tan

Check out our post about picture books here: