I am an insufferably logocentric sort, preferring all versions of the world around me filtered through the medium of words – anything written, a book, a magazine, a blog, a list, or a plain old instructional manual a neighbour has thrown out. That is why the idea of wordless books caught me by surprise.
A conversation with artist Priya Kuriyan about her favourite illustrated books threw up these wonderful, completely silent picture books, and the sheer pleasure they evoked taught me something about the power of storytelling.
While initially these wordless picture books might have been imagined for very young readers, pre-schoolers and kindergarteners perhaps, in the hands of extraordinary artists they become ways of unpeeling the world and telling a story – sometimes simple, often complex – without the crutch of words, each narrative clue worked into the image. It’s literally “show, don’t tell” taken to its logical conclusion.
Hearkening back to cave-dwellers who left us their narratives scratched on the stone walls of their homes, which we have been able to access without language or context, the world of wordless books is uniquely egalitarian and thus make worthy gifts for even those who cannot or do not like to “read”.
We have, in the spirit of this new and egalitarian reading, listed for you five wordless books that you absolutely, utterly, must, well, read.
Home, Jeannie Baker
In the past, “home” meant not just a building in which a person lived. “Home” embraced the street, the landmarks, and the special places in the neighbourhood. Now many people throughout the world live in cities and urban communities and no longer feel a strong connection with the land on which these places are built.
In some cities, however, communities are finding ways their streets can once again become part of people’s sense of home and play a part in their sense of belonging. Many communities are working to bring back the variety of local native plants and animals that once lived there. People are discovering the need to nurture and to be nurtured by the unique character of the places where they live.— “Afterword”, Home
Australian writer-artist-filmmaker Jeannie Baker’s Home tells the story of a neighbourhood and its transformation from a shabby, slightly disreputable quarter to a charming, welcoming corner of the city through a single frame: the protagonist’s window overlooking her backyard and the street beyond. Beginning with baby Tracy coming home with her young parents, the book traces her life as she grows into a child playing outside, a teenager and then a young bride.
We find the passing of years mirrored in tiny details, captured adroitly by Baker’s stunning collages. As the neighbourhood children and their adults begin to reclaim “home” from the urban ecosystem, bit by bit, the cold, grey, aloof vista outside Tracy’s window gradually turns into lush, welcoming sight.
It is an oft-cited theory in the West that one broken window can quickly signal the decline of a neighbourhood, with vandalism and crime rapidly following suit. By optimistically positioning the reverse theory, that it takes one patch of green to reclaim a whole neighbourhood, with murals painted over the graffiti and a spot of enthusiastic gardening, Baker tells a heart-warming wordless story that both endears and endures. And even if pop up environmentalism and a girl’s coming-of-age are not your thing, read the book for Baker’s dazzling collages!
Mr Wuffles by David Weisner
The inimitable David Weisner (three-time winner of the prestigious Caldecott Award for picture books) is the creator of some of the wonkiest wordless (and near wordless) picture books, often located at the intersection of science fiction and the ordinary world. In Mr Wuffles, we meet the eponymous feline protagonist who ignores all the toys given to him by his eager-to-please human and gets obsessed with what turns out to be a non-toy, a real tiny spaceship full of aliens.
A sort of Arrival for cat-lovers – or cat-haters if you will – the humour is derived not merely from the wrecking tendencies of the domineering and downright destructive Mr Wuffles (cat names being as deceptive as human ones) but also from the felicitous and linguistically fascinating friendship that results between the aliens and a battery of ants who agree to help them out. A ladybug too plays a heroic role. As eccentric as Flotsam and as satisfying as Art and Max, Mr Wuffles, based on Weisner’s household muse, is a perfect gift for an alien-minded nephew or aunt you might know.
Mirrors by Suzy Lee
“As a book artist, I am very interested in creating a book which is possible because it takes the form of the book. There are many interesting aspects that the book as an object naturally innate. I focused on “the border” between the two facing pages of the book, the center binding line. What if I use this gutter intentionally to make a story? And this center fold seems to be perfect to work as a border of fantasy and reality ... The left hand-side represents the real world and the right hand-side represents the wave’s world. In order to get into the fantasy, you need to cross over this border – the child is literally absorbed into the center, and then comes out of it. Now, something’s been changed.”
What Korean artist and illustrator Suzy Lee says about her award-winning 2008 book Wave (wordless) applies as much to her earlier creation, the far edgier Mirror. The pages resemble a slightly elongated grey mirror-like backdrop, with the young protagonist occupying a little corner. Soon, she starts dancing – gloriously – and her mirror image follows suit. The images of her utterly unselfconscious dancing are incredible. The centre-fold becomes a reference point of their relationship, until the reflection begins to do her own things and the little girl suddenly finds something deep and dark within. An arresting tour-de-force about childhood at the cross-roads of colliding worlds, Mirror is a sophisticated silent book that will leave you somewhat troubled.
The Lion and the Mouse by Jerry Pinkney
Pinkney’s wordless reinterpretation of the popular Aesop’s fable – no act of kindness is ever wasted – is a treat for the eyes. Large realistic watercolours set in the African Serengeti (Kenya and Tanzania) bring alive the eternal story of the fierce lion (here, a majestic African) who spares a little mouse who’s having a particularly fatal day, only to be saved by the mouse later himself when he’s been trapped by a hunter’s ropes.
The interpretation makes the setting contemporary and very vivid. In the background, other animals wander. The bush has been recreated with such exactness that as you turn the pages, you can almost hear the cicadas sing, the owl hoot, and the soft swish of the wind in the grass. Whether you love wordless picture books, animals or just plain travel, Pinkney’s book is the literary equivalent of a safari with heart.
Ammachi’s Glasses by Priya Kuriyan
Ammachi’s Glasses tells the story of an adorable Malayali grandmother who, one fine morning, to the horror of her family, starts doing bizarre things: she washes the cat and hangs him out to dry, cooks a slipper, wears her granddaughter’s top, perches on a tree and chomps a beetle. Why on earth? To solve this mystery, you must read the book right away.
After the first reading, when you rush through the pages for answers (Why Ammachi? Why?), you will return to a second, unhurried reading, which will reveal to you the charming world of a Syrian Christian household in Kerala. The Dad reads The Hindu, the Mum drapes a dupatta on top of her nightie when in front of strange men (there is a fire brigade in the picture), the menu comprises fish and tapioca mash, and the literary minded Ammachi reads Franz Kafka: Complete Stories. A joyful book that, one hopes, will be a pathfinder in the wordless genre.
(Devapriya Roy is the author of two-and-a-half books and a so-long-dragged-out-that-it-was-nearly-abandoned PhD thesis on the Natyashastra. Follow her @DevapriyaRoy.)