Unseasonable cold and rain in Washington, D.C., did not deter a faithful crowd of children’s literature enthusiasts from attending local bookstore Politics and Prose’s fourth annual picture book panel, held on Sunday, May 1. Past discussions explored the importance of the picture book; nonfiction in picture books; and the role of these titles for older readers. This year focused on picture books without words. Panelists included moderator Allyn Johnston, v-p and publisher of Beach Lane Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing; and the authors, illustrators, and visual storytellers Henry Cole; Raúl Colón; Marla Frazee; Stephen Savage; and David Wiesner.
Johnston opened with the admission that she might be an unconventional choice to moderate this panel, as in her 30 years in publishing she has edited only one wordless picture book. “I’m intimidated by them. You have to work too hard to figure out what’s going on.” The audience laughed, many nodding. Then Johnston opened it up to the panelists, asking, “So what is this wordless picture book phenomenon? Is it a trick? A game? Are you trying to pull something over on us?”
Wiesner (Tuesday; The Three Pigs; Flotsam) said, “I read, think, and tell stories in pictures.” He described the first time he experienced a wordless book, the comic Nick Fury: Agent of Shield by Jim Steranko – as a jolt, or an electric shock. “I knew this was how I wanted to tell stories. And I was fortunate to find an editor who didn’t blink [at the idea].”
Johnston pointed out that though wordless picture books are recently a hot commodity, they have enjoyed a long history. Frazee (The Farmer and The Clown; All the World) recalled, “I was transported as a child by the wordless portion of Where the Wild Things Are, when Max’s bedroom transforms into the forest.” She found it both magical and mind-blowing, and said she knew she wanted to learn how to do that when she grew up. Several panelists cited the novels of Lynn Ward as inspiration for wordless storytelling, and Wiesner held up a copy of Ruth Carroll’s 1932 picture book What Whiskers Did.
The panelists described how developing books without words has become more common. Early in his career when Cole (Unspoken; Spot, the Cat; And Tango Makes Three) switched from teaching science to writing and illustrating books, his editor insisted on words. Whereas Colón (Draw!; Jose! Born to Dance; Don’t Forget, God Save Our Troops) said, “In my case, my book had words and my editor took them out.”
All agreed that whether to employ words or not depends on the story. Savage (Where’s Walrus; Polar Bear Night) said he chose not to use words for Where’s Walrus “to be funny, and silly. I liked that it [the format] broke down the wall between the expert storyteller and the reader, throws it back on the audience, and gets them involved.” Savage believes that slapstick comedy works far better in a book without words, just as in the silent films of Charlie Chaplin. Colón described a freeing effect: once he let go of words he could tell even more stories.
Frazee praised children as expert readers of pictures. “I tell kids when I go to schools, you are far better at this than adults.” Wiesner agreed that kids just get wordless books in a way adults don’t. The expert eyes of children intensify their connection to the pictures and make them natural audiences for wordless books. However, the fact that adults are the gatekeepers and primary purchasers of picture books means that some wordless picture books can be overlooked.
When asked about the challenges and differences between creating worded and wordless books, several panelists agreed that it can be more difficult to convey certain emotions in wordless books. Wiesner noted that in an early draft of Sector 7 he tried get across that a group of clouds was bored and instead his editor and others interpreted their emotions as anger. At this, he emphasized the importance of revision.
A wordless format can dictate illustration choices. For example, Cole employed black and white ink for Spot, the Cat because it has a Where’s Waldo? concept of searching for the cat, and he finds it easier to hide things in black and white. Cole said the fact that there were no words “meant we had to add even more storyline into the illustration.” Savage likened creating a wordless story to film editing. “You have to think of cuts and flow. There’s a lot of trial and error.”
All panelists agreed that accuracy is key, in all picture books, but especially in wordless stories. “Kids notice everything,” Wiesner said. Johnston is Frazee’s editor, and they shared an anecdote about The Farmer and the Clown in which one early page showed only eight of the 10 clowns. Although Frazee’s logic was that two were doing something else, they ultimately agreed it wasn’t convincing without all of the clowns in the panel.
The question and answer session included a surprise for Cole. An audience member, Caity Pittenger, revealed that her grandmother was the noted author Jean Craighead George. A shocked and pleased Cole shared how George had once visited the school where he taught science, and recalled how he screwed up his courage to ask her if she might suggest an editor for his picture book on bats. “She was tall and imposing and she stared at me for 10 seconds – a long time to be stared at – and then grabbed a napkin and wrote the name Katherine Tegen.” Tegen became his first editor. He offered to buy Pittenger a drink after the panel and acknowledged how much he was indebted to George.
Johnston concluded that a picture book should cast a spell. She sees a picture book as theater – as performance art. “It doesn’t work if each picture isn’t in the right place.” And clearly to enthrall the reader in that spell, no words are necessary.