Wordless Storytelling: Building Visual Literacy

Picture books without words remain a perennially popular format among books published for young readers. And it’s no wonder! Wordless storytelling is appealing and accessible to many different types of readers. Stories told through illustrations can evoke strong feelings and stimulate the imagination in ways that differ from the written word. Limiting or eliminating the text of a story frees up space for a reader to pay attention to visual information. Further, without the benchmarks of the text’s pace, readers are free to linger over the images for as long as they want, noticing details and interpreting the art.
Wordless storytelling relies on readers’ visual literacy skills. Visual literacy is set of skills that relate to how people create meaning from images or visual information. Young people must learn to “read” images in addition to learning to decode text. Children’s book author Molly Bang theorized about the ten basic principles of making meaning through illustrations in her book Picture This: How Pictures Work. Wordless picture books are a significant part of the S-Collection, so check out some new wordless picture books (and a few graphic novels) listed below!

Becker, Aaron
The Tree and the River. 2023 (Picture Book).
In an alternate past (or possible future) a mighty tree stands on the banks of a winding river, silently witnessing the flow of time and change. A family farms the fertile valley. Soon, a village emerges, and not long after, a larger town. Residents learn to harness the water, the wind, and the animals in order to survive and thrive. As the growing population becomes ever more industrious and clever, they bend nature itself to their will and their ambition: redirecting rivers, harvesting lumber, reshaping the land, even extending daylight itself. Meticulously detailed pencil and gouache illustrations convey the fullness of life over the long view of time and human societies.
Q. SE. B38855tr

Cole, Henry
One Little Bag: An Amazing Journey. 2020 (Picture Book).
In this wordless story that opens with an image of a tall tree growing in the forest, a brown bag finds its way into the hands of a young boy on the eve of his first day of school. So begins the journey of one brown bag that is used and re-used and re-used again. Spanning three generations of one family, the bag is transporter of objects and keeper of memories. When Grandfather comes to the end of his life, the family finds a meaningful new way for the battered, but much-loved brown bag to continue its journey in the circle of life. Sketched illustrations that are almost entirely in black and white except for the brown bag highlight the continuous nature of the bag’s lifespan.
Q. SE. C6743one

Colón, Raúl
Imagine! 2018 (Picture Book).
In this larger-than-life wordless tale, a boy passes a grand museum many times but never steps inside. Today is different. He rides his skateboard across a bridge into Manhattan and stands on the street. What will it be like inside? He stops to wonder and imagine. Colón tells this story, based on his own life experiences, of how an afternoon’s adventure changes a boy’s life forever. As the boy views several famous paintings, the line between art and life begins to blur. The illustrations’ saturated colors and deep textures will capture readers’ attention as they follow the story-line of this boy’s imaginative city adventure.
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Castellanos, Alexis
Isla to Island. 2022 (Middle Grade Graphic Novel).
This marvelous wordless graphic novel examines the meaning of home by following a young girl in the 1960s as she immigrates from Cuba to the United States. Marisol loves her colorful island. Cuba is vibrant with flowers and food and people, but things are changing. The home Marisol loves is no longer safe. Her parents are sending her to the United States. Alone. Nothing about Marisol’s new life in cold, bleak Brooklyn feels like home: not the language, school, or even her foster parents. But Marisol starts to realize that home isn’t always a place and finding her way can be as simple as trusting herself. Illustrations begin in vibrant color in the Cuban setting, and shift to grayscale in Brooklyn, with speech bubbles filled with squiggles, representing the language Marisol cannot yet understand. This historical graphic novel is a heartrending look at the refugee experience.
S.741.5973 C2765is

The Flamingo. 2022 (Early Reader Graphic Novel).
This stunning graphic novel cinematically captures the spirit of adventure and wonder through the story of an imaginative girl and her obsession with flamingos. A little girl arrives at a house by the beach, excited for a vacation with her Lao Lao. The girl and her grandmother search for shells, follow crabs, and play in the sea, but when the girl finds an exquisite flamingo feather in her grandmother’s living room, her vacation turns into something fantastical. The digital, watercolor, and colored pencil illustrations are highly detailed and emotively convey the child’s feelings and imagined perspectives sparked by the discovery of the flamingo feather.
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Kim, Jihyun
The Depth of the Lake and the Height of the Sky. 2022 (Picture Book).
It’s summertime, and together with his parents, a boy and his dog are leaving behind their apartment in the busy city. The boy’s grandparents’ home in the countryside feels like a different world. From the window, the curious boy sees a path leading temptingly into the forest. He can’t wait to explore. Without any text, this picture book tells the heartfelt and uplifting story of a child’s discovery of the outdoor world. Full of wonder and quiet delight, this book’s wordless highly detailed, monochrome illustrations are a celebration of all that is precious in nature.
Q. SE. K56035de

Lam, Thao
The Paper Boat. 2020 (Picture Book).
In this wordless picture book, Thao’s signature collage art tells the story of one family’s escape from the Vietnam War in a manner that is intertwined with an ant colony’s parallel narrative. At her home in Vietnam, a girl rescues ants from the sugar water set out to trap them. Later, when the girl’s family flees the war-torn country, ants lead them through the moonlit jungle to the boat that will take them to safety. Before getting in the watercraft, the girl folds a paper boat from a bun wrapper and drops it into the water, and the ants climb onto it. Their perilous journey, besieged by dangerous weather, aggressive birds, and dehydration, before reaching a new beginning, mirrors the family’s own. Cut paper collages mainly in white, gray, and black, give a solemn, three-dimensional feel, and spare hints of color highlight important themes in this moving tale of courage, resilience, and hope.
Q. SE. L163pa

Lawson, JonArno
Illustrated by: Qin Leng
A Day for Sandcastles. 2022 (Picture Book).
This brilliant wordless picture book celebrates creative problem-solving, cooperation, and persistence during a sunny day at the beach. A busload of beach-goers spills out onto the sand for a day of fun by the water. Three young siblings begin to create a sandcastle, patting and shaping the grains as the sun arcs over the sky. Time and again, their progress is stalled: a windswept hat topples their creation, a toddler ambles through it, the tide creeps close, and then too close. Responding to each demolition with fresh determination, the builders continually outdo themselves, until the time comes to board the bus for home. An authentic portrait of sibling cooperation, and glorious inspiration for creative people of all ages, this story channels the thrill of surrendering expectations on the path to infinite possibility.
Q. SE. L4452da

Robinson, Christian
Another. 2019 (Picture Book).
In Robinson’s debut picture book as an author and illustrator, a young girl and her cat take an imaginative journey into another world. What if you encountered another perspective? Discovered another world? Met another you? What might you do? This wordless story chronicles the girl’s dream-like experience of going through a portal in her bedroom into another realm and finding a mirror image of herself and her cat. With black or white backgrounds distinguishing between the two realms, and vibrant pops of color in the objects the girl encounters, this book encourages young readers to look carefully and calmly consider concepts like reality and existence.
Q. SE. R5611an

Smith, Sydney
Small in the City. 2019 (Picture Book).
In this wordless picture book, Smith spins a quiet tale about seeing a big world through little eyes. It can be a little scary to be small in a big city, but it helps to know you’re not alone. When you’re small in the city, people don’t see you, and loud sounds can scare you, and knowing what to do is sometimes hard. Alleys can be good shortcuts, but some are too dark. There are also lots of good hiding places in the city, like under a mulberry bush or up a walnut tree. Hand drawn scenes, often divided into quadrants on the page, show glimpses of the perspective of being small in the city during a snowstorm, all rendered in a subdued color palette. A boy narrates this story, and readers slowly realize he is giving gentle advice to his lost cat on how to be safe in the big city and to find its way home.
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