April 15, 2014

Not a Word!

        Today’s theme is fantasy books that tell their stories entirely without words.  There are a lot more wordless picture books these days than I had realized, and a lot of them include fantasy themes, perhaps because just about all of them emphasize the power of imagination.  I’ve picked out some of my favorites, and arranged them into some different categories.

With Thanks to the Purple Crayon
        Yes, Crockett Johnson’s classic has words (charming words, at that), but its premise of drawing things that come true is a very popular one in wordless picture books.
   Journey by Aaron Becker - (The front flap calls it a red marker, but it looks more like a crayon to me.)  The story has a lonely child entering a fantasy world (a theme shared by many of today’s featured books), having some adventures, and then returning home having made a friend.  Quite simply it’s the illustrations that make the book, and earned it a Caldecott honor this year.  They’re absolutely gorgeous, with wonderful atmosphere paired with intricate detail so they’re a pleasure to look at and an invitation to imagination.  Favorite pictures: the scenes with cross sections.
   Chalk by Bill Thomson - (sidewalk chalk) The illustrations are a little too slick and shiny for my taste, but their hyperrealism works well for showing things coming to life.  The punch line of the story could be that unleashed imagination is dangerous and best left alone, or perhaps that kids can solve their own problems with creativity.  Either way, a fun invitation to “What if?”  P liked this one a lot.  Favorite picture: butterflies everywhere!
   Magpie Magic by April Wilson - (colored pencils)  A pair of anonymous hands draw a magpie that comes to life - and then wants to join in the magical sketching.  This book reminds me not only of Harold’s purple crayon, but also of the classic cartoon “Duck Amuck,” as artist and art jockey against each other.  There may not be a lot of scope for imagination beyond what the story shows, but it’s still a fun riff on drawing.  Favorite picture: human and magpie drawing a landscape together.

David Wiesner
        Wiesner is the king of wordless books, having “written” many, won three Caldecotts, and earned lots of other accolades.
   Sector 7 - A story about a boy who befriends a cloud and is taken on a visit to the clouds’ headquarters, this is a fun daydream of a book.  The boy is thrown out of Sector 7 for encouraging the clouds to form other shapes (mostly fish).  Favorite pictures: front facade of Sector 7 or sky full of fish clouds over the city.
   Flotsam - Less a linear story than Sector 7, and more of an open-ended musing, Flotsam posits a mysterious camera that reveals some of the varied magic going on in the ocean, and connects a line of children through the (20th) century and around the world who have found the camera.  Favorite pictures: octopus living room or turtle town.
        Wiesner’s illustrations are always beautiful, with realism and detail to bring  the fantastical images into the realm of plausibility.  He has a cinematic flair, often showing scenes from interesting angles or playing with different viewpoints.  Other wordless fantasy books by Wiesner include Tuesday, Free Fall, Mr Wuffles!, and probably more I’m missing.

Creepy Castle by John S. Goodall - This is one I remember from my childhood.  It tells a simple, linear story of a medieval mouse couple entering and then escaping from a castle.  The clever twist is that every other page is only half the width of the book, so that when you turn the half pages, instead of getting an entirely new picture, one small element changes.  This speeds up the action and enhances the suspense as you wonder what will happen behind each turn of the page.  Unlike many of the others, this one is a traditional story, even without words, rather than an open-ended fantasy.  Favorite pictures: I like all the views of the castle.

Sea of Dreams by Dennis Nolan - A lovely, suggestive book in which the adventure is experienced not by the normal human child, but behind her back after she’s walked away.  It encourages that classic field for imagination: what happens in our world when we’re not looking?  Beautiful illustrations in the skilled style, like Wiesner’s, that works well by making magical scenes look plausibly real.  Favorite picture: the light coming on in the sand castle.

Printmaking Connections
   Museum Trip by Barbara Lehman - A boy has secret adventures in art - art that looks like it could be wood block prints, no less.  Clearly I’m going to like this.  Lehman’s style is simple, almost cartoonish, without any unnecessary details.  But all the necessary details are there, and the pictures are very pleasing to look at.  Fun details in this story include several mazes that readers can work through, and references to the work of lots of real artists, including Van Gogh, Rousseau, Calder, Miro, Klee, Picasso, and more.  Favorite pictures: view of the central hall of the museum or side view of the boy in the maze with the tree.  Other wordless books by Lehman include Trainstop, The Red Book (which earned a Caldecott honor), and Rainstorm (which has perhaps the most attractive pictures).
   The Tree House by Marije Tolman and Ronald Tolman - Maybe not quite fantasy, but certainly dream-like, this book has no plot, just lots of assorted animals playing in a treehouse over the course of a day.  The image of the treehouse looks like it’s a lithograph, and then the different animals are painted onto it on each page.  Favorite picture: the arrival of rhino with flamingos.
   Hogwash by Arthur Geisert - There’s no story line to this book; it simply shows, in intricate detail, all the steps in the Rube-Goldbergian contraption that cleans a town full of muddy little piglets.  Favorite picture: The view of the whole machine.  Geisert’s books are all illustrated with detailed etchings, they’re all about pigs, and a number of them are wordless.  Perhaps the most fantastical is The Giant Seed, in which pigs escape from a volcano on enormous dandelion seeds, but the ones with intricate and ridiculous machinery might count as sci-fi.  P and I found Oops a little too macabre, but liked Lights Out a lot (especially P).

        Also worth mentioning, Polo and Polo and the Dragon by Régis Faller and
The Boy, the Bear, the Baron, the Bard by Gregory Rogers - These were too much like comic books for me to count them, but they are wordless.  The Polo books show varied adventures, always cheerful.  They include lots of fantasy and sci fi tropes in very simplified forms suitable for young children, although 11-year-old P, who was helping me with reviews, enjoyed them.  The Boy is a chase through Elizabethan London when a boy travels through time in the Globe Theatre.  But watch out, purists: for some reason Shakespeare is the villain of the piece!

[Pictures: Computer, pen and ink, and watercolor illustration by Aaron Becker from Journey, 2013;
Watercolor illustration by David Wiesner from Sector 7, 1999;
Pen and ink and watercolor illustration by Barbara Lehman from Museum Trip, 2006.]

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