Shaun Tan

Wordless Picture Books

This past week, we were studying wordless picture books. Here is my discussion post answering questions such as some favorite wordless picture books and whether we thought wordless picture books could be improved with words or vice-versa, whether there were picture books with words that could published as wordless.

A prime contender for my favorite wordless picture book is Shaun Tan’s The Arrival. It tells a metaphorical story about the immigrant experience, with a poor man leaving home on a steamship in order to support his family, and finding himself in a bizarre new world. Many aspects of immigration are reflected: confusion, frustration, tedious manual labor, and the dangers of war, but also the joys of making new friends, discovering new experiences, and finding ways to support the people you love. The world of The Arrival is visually set in the early 20th century, and the art style is modeled after the sepia photographs of those periods, making the strange creatures and environments feel all the more otherworldly. The lack of words helps to make the reader’s connection with the immigrant protagonist all the more direct, as he struggles to figure out an often difficult to comprehend new environment. In Tan’s own words, “Words have a remarkable magnetic pull on our attention, and how we interpret attendant images: in their absence, an image can often have more conceptual space around it, and invite a more lingering attention from a reader who might otherwise reach for the nearest convenient caption, and let that rule their imagination.”

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A wordless picture book that I haven’t read in its entirety, but is pretty good from what I’ve seen, is Journey by Aaron Becker. I like it because of its sense of wonder, and its simple, positive message about creative works can break boundaries and reach out to other people. The lack of words in this book, again, helps to place the reader in the protagonist’s place, as they discover the possibilities of their creativity over the story’s course.

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I kind of can’t name any wordless books that I think would be improved by words. Wordless picture books have their own strengths as a format; they have a certain element of discovery to them, as the reader pieces together events without the aid of a narrative text. There are some books could be adapted pretty simply, if not necessarily improved, into effective wordless books. Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are comes to mind, as do some of Beatrix Potter’s works.

I’m starting my picture book dummy based on the story of The Velveteen Rabbit. I could tell the gist of the plot of the story without words, but I feel like some nuances, such as the point the Skin Horse makes about toys becoming real, would be at least partially lost.