I love wordless picture books for a few reasons. I love their focus on art, and I love how thoughtfully created they are. They kind of have to be – without text, the pressure is on for illustrations to show us the story clearly. Good wordless picture books flow from one page to the next like a movie. But the best wordless picture books – and all of the books on this list – use their textlessness as an opportunity to take off on ingenious artistic flights of fancy. These are a few of my favorites right now.
Shadow, by Suzy Lee, Chronicle Books, Ages 3-6
A little girl turns on the attic light and entertains herself by making shadow puppets. Her fantasies take over the whole room, and soon she’s swallowed up in a shadow adventure full of princesses, elephants, and monsters who may not be as scary as they seem. Shadow is mirrored into two, split along the spine of the book, with the left-hand pages depicting “real” world, and the right-hand pages depicting the shadows. Everything is in black and white, except for when the little girl starts to use her imagination – then things take on a glowing yellow aura. Done in smoky charcoal and spray paint, Lee’s shadows positively smolder with that dark, magical shapeless feeling that real shadows give. This is a great book for practicing comprehension skills, since in addition to following the shadow adventure, the young reader can point out which real-life objects, such as ladders and bicycle wheels, correspond to which palm trees and moons.
Sea of Dreams,by Dennis Nolan, Macmillan Publishing, Ages 3-6
Sea of Dreams follows the secret journey of a tiny family fleeing the crumbling sand castle where they lived before the tide came in. Nolan’s soft, sumptuously colored illustrations give this story the air of a fairy tale. One of the most magical aspects of this book is the scale: we get to reexamine familiar things from our world from the point of view of someone very small. The towering seagulls and megalithic cliffs really help create a sense of wonder. Nolan’s art conveys a great deal of movement, so that although the story is quiet, high-action moments like the huge wave that threatens their boat, or the rescue of a boy overboard by young mermaids, are breathless encounters. This is the perfect bedtime book: exciting enough to hold the young reader’s attention, but calm enough to encourage that sleepytime hush.
A conductor enters a forest, climbs a tree, and begins to conduct the leaves. First one, then two, and then countless leaves peel off the trees and fly away like birds under the conductor’s direction. Framed like the movements in a piece of classical music, each double-page spread in this visually breathtaking book shows the flight of the leaf flock. Some pages show only one or two leaves, drawn in large, intricate detail; some pages are flooded with wings. The Conductor is one of the best visual representations of music I’ve ever seen in a book. For musically inclined children, or those in the process of trying to understand music, this book would be a great tool for explaining the different aspects of a piece of music. It could even be read while music is playing, so that the child could connect the pictures with sounds. For attention span reasons, I’d recommend this for children on the older end of the 3-6 scale, but if your child can sit through a story that’s more art than plot, don’t hesitate to pick up this gorgeous book.
Chalk,by Bill Thomson, Marshall Cavendish, Ages 3-6
Swathed in rain gear and armed with a bag of chalk, three children go to the playground on a rainy day. They quickly realize that the things they draw come to life, which is all fun and games until someone draws a dinosaur. This vividly photo-realistic adventure is painted from dramatic perspectives and drenched with light so that all the colors really pop off the page. Even in the rainy beginning, the colors are warm and strong. The art is really amazing; Thomson used reference photographs, but Chalk is painted entirely, and painstakingly, by hand. That realism makes it even more magical when the chalk drawings come to life. It’s like it really happened! Bonus point for suggesting that drawing is the source of incredible experiences. Here’s hoping that Chalk inspires a lot of young ones to enter the arts, and here’s hoping it leads them on imaginative journeys as fun as this one!