Wordless Picture Books in the Classroom: Telling Stories Through Illustrations

The world we live in today is increasingly crowded with images that we must decode to navigate our daily lives—whether it’s photos shared on social media, emojis texted by our friends, or the ads, notices, and public art on city streets. It’s especially important today for children to learn how to look carefully at and interpret what they see. 

What Are Wordless Picture Books?

Wordless books, where the story is told entirely through illustrations, can teach kids how to look closely, notice details, and gather information from visual clues. They also help children learn the structure of storytelling; wordless books teach them how to figure out sequencing and cause-and-effect as well as how to organize a story into parts. With wordless books, children can move from merely describing what is happening to narrating a story. In a classroom, this means that even the struggling reader can experience success with reading a book—there are no “right” words or a correct way to experience and interpret it. Books with no words, or only a few words, can be a great way to engage English learners or be otherwise used in bilingual classrooms. 

All good wordless books are about discovery—about what you can see if you look carefully at your surroundings. The best wordless books open up the world around us, sparking imagination as well as creative thinking. Here are two masters of wordless-book making from HMH and some of their books that do just that.

David Wiesner

He is one of the great artists of the wordless book and is still working today. His books often have a dream-like quality, combining mystery, fantasy, and humor. His 1991 book Tuesday was the first wordless book to win the Caldecott Medal, and he won it again for the wordless Flotsam in 2006. (His third Caldecott was for a book with words, The Three Pigs, in 2001.)

Tuesday (left) and Flotsam by David Wiesner

All of the action in Tuesday takes place during the night in a bucolic suburban town when, suddenly, frogs begin to fly away on their flying-saucer-like lily pads. The only text displayed is the time. Wiesner uses double spreads as well as panels on top of other images to propel the story forward and describe the confusion of those who observe the frogs.

In Wiesner’s Flotsam, a boy finds a camera washed up on a beach and develops the film inside to discover scenes of underwater life as well as all of the other children who have found the camera. Wiesner manages to weave nostalgia about summer on the beach with wild imaginative renderings of life under the sea in a celebration of the art of photography. He uses panels of all different sizes to convey time and place so that words are completely unnecessary.

Sector 7 by David Wiesner

Sector 7, also by Wiesner, is divided into three parts; the first and last are about a school trip to the Empire State Building, and in the middle section, the protagonist is swept away to the place where clouds are made. Wiesner delineates the “real” story from the fantasy section by presenting each page traditionally, with a border, until the visit to Sector 7, when the images bleed all the way to the page’s edges. It’s a marvelous way to reinforce the wordlessness and let the reader receive the message visually.

Mr. Wuffles! by David Wiesner

Mr. Wuffles! is a different kind of wordless book in that it actually contains a lot of dialog in balloons—like what you might see in a comic book—but because the conversations are between a cat, insects, and tiny aliens who all have their own language, none of it is readable. It can be a good idea to read this one with a struggling reader because even the grown-up will have to admit to not being able to read the language. It would also be a good choice for anyone interested in languages and codes because there is clearly a structure to the aliens’ symbols.

Barbara Lehman

Barbara Lehman is another HMH author who is another master of the wordless book. She is a more minimalist artist than Wiesner and her books are quieter, but they share a deeply imaginative quality that is sparked from looking at objects. Her books The Red Book and Red Again are books about books—about the magic of storytelling. 

The Red Book (left) and Red Again by Barbara Lehman

Museum Trip is just what the title says, but when one boy gets separated from his group, he embarks on an adventurous trip through mazes on display before rejoining his class.

Museum Trip by Barbara Lehman

Even though these books are technically designated for Grades Pre-K–3, wordless books can be wonderful ways for children of all ages to experience storytelling. They use the rich and complex visual language of art to reach their audience, teaching an appreciation of how images tell stories. The reader is an integral part of these books; every reader will get something different out of them, just as every reading will show you something new, which is why wordless books make a good addition to every home and classroom library. But the best thing about these books is that they are fun!

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