At bedtime recently, I recommended we read David Wiesner’s Flotsam, which received the Caldecott Medal:
Recognizing the book from its cover, one of my four-year-old twin daughters asked, “This book doesn’t have words, right?”
“Right,” I replied, ignoring the fact that the book contains precisely three words: Melville Underwater Camera, which are painted on an object that emerges from the sea and exposes a young boy to a fascinating underwater world.
My daughter smiled broadly and said, “Then I can read this story. Good.”
At age four, my girls are on the cusp of reading, able to recognize letters and a handful of words, but unable to read full sentences. For them, wordless picture books like Flotsam, which tell stories solely through a series of illustrations, give them an opportunity to narrate stories before learning how to read. At its best, these types of books encourage creative thinking, and, as the conversation with my daughter suggests, also foster self-esteem and a love of books. I find this potential of wordless picture books to be particularly beneficial for one of my twins, the one who gives up too soon when she does not recognize a letter or a word in a conventional book.
Despite these benefits, I’m ambivalent about wordless picture books. For some reason, it feels wrong to read a book without any words! I particularly feel this way because these books do nothing to help me teach my girls to recognize letters and words. Also, these books are sometimes difficult to narrate when the illustrations are unduly complex or incoherent.
Flotsam’s detailed, whimsical illustrations were cumbersome to narrate the first time around. After receiving it for their third birthday last year, my girls wanted to listen to the story, without actively participating in telling it, and that meant that interpreting Flotsam was a creative exercise for me, rather than for them. No matter how much I encouraged my girls to narrate the story, they would only say, “And then what happened, mommy?,” leaving it entirely up to me to make up a narrative to match David Wiesner’s detailed drawings. I did not need that kind of creative challenge at bedtime after a long day of balancing work and family responsibilities.
I have since learned that Flotsam is listed on Amazon as the “5 and up” reading level, and I agree that the rather complex string of illustrations is better suited for pre-K and elementary school kids than for three-year-olds. At four and a half, my girls finally want to narrate the story instead of listening passively.
I’ve learned to appreciate wordless picture books, but they will never be my favorite options on my girls’ bookshelf. Ironically, though, my favorite book so far is a sparsely-worded book by David Wiesner: Art & Max, which is beautifully illustrated and contains enough words to add structure to the story without stifling young imaginations. I particularly like how the story encourages children to think about what art really is, giving them an appreciation for both realistic artwork (like Arthur creates) and experimental work (like Max creates). It’s wonderful.