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NO WORDS - celebrating wordless picture books

Posted by Emma Balch on

#NOWORDS - telling stories through pictures 

- an exhibition at The Story of Books in Hay-on-Wye

Clare Walters collects picture books for children where images tell the story. It is a world of books that is surprisingly eclectic and creative, and relatively new. Clare's interest in wordless picture books began in the 1970s. As a newly qualified primary school teacher she saw first-hand how children would 'read' the images in picture books long before they could read the text.

"I saw how much children enjoyed books where the pictures told a separate story to the text, such as Rosie’s Walk (1968) by Pat Hutchins and Come Away From The Water, Shirley (1977) by John Burningham. I also discovered books that had long sections with no words at all, such as Where The Wild Things Are (1963) by Maurice Sendak."

Clare's interest developed as she went on to work in journalism and study for an MA in children's literature, and chose wordless picture books as the subject of her dissertation. She began collecting. Clare focused on books from publishers in the Anglophile world, doing research and asking for recommendations to discover new ways of storytelling through pictures. Clare didn't worry about finding first editions, or new books, but found ex-library and other easy-to-source copies. She scoured bookshops, galleries, museums, as well as searching online.   

Emma Balch from The Story of Books at the #NoWords exhibition

"I looked for reading lists created by librarians and educationalists, and checked out titles mentioned in academic texts. In addition I asked friends for recommendations and used social media to request suggestions. Indeed one of my all-time favourite books, The Arrival (2006) by Shaun Tan, was discovered as the direct result of a reply to a tweet."

"Many of the books came from old library stocks, often from the US and often with the original tickets inside (fascinating bits of historical evidence themselves) while others came from individuals’ bookshelves. I wasn’t looking for first editions or pristine copies, though these were obviously a bonus, but was content with well-thumbed versions or recent reprints."

Clare Walters with Judith Gardner, owner of the Children's Bookshop in Hay-on-Wye

Clare's collection now has more than 200 books, and she keeps adding to it. In 2018 we were thrilled to display Clare's collection at The Story of Books in Hay-on-Wye. #NoWords was a winter celebration of wordless picture books. Visitors were surprised to discover the many different styles of illustration and storytelling. The photos in this post are from the #NoWords exhibition at The Story of Books. 

Many of the books are displayed on shelves on her website: www.wordlessbooks.co.uk - do take a look and explore. 

Why wordless books? by Clare Walters

Wordless books, sometimes known as silent books, have a long tradition dating back at least to the early twentieth century and include such artists as Frans Masereel and Lynd Ward, who created titles aimed principally at adults. However, when high-quality printing became easier and cheaper in the early 1960s, the picturebook market for children began to expand, and the number of wordless titles grew with it. One notable American pioneer was the artist Mercer Mayer, now famous for his A Boy, a Dog, and a Frog (1967) series.

When I began my collection I was surprised and delighted by the variety of work I discovered. I expected simple board books for babies – of which there are many, usually with single images to a page – but I also came across much longer, more narrative, comic-strip books for older children, as well as challengingly complex abstract, surreal or high-concept books for young adults. Formats proved diverse, too. There were tall books, wide books, novelty titles, and limited edition art books with delicate transparent overlays. Some were tiny, small enough to be held in the palm of one hand, others were large heavy hardbacks.

Most impressive, though, was the tremendous breadth of artistic styles, from the colourful collages of Eric Carle to the muted tones of Laëtitia Devernay’s The Conductor (2010). From the 3D constructions of Jeannie Baker’s Window (1991) to the delicate line drawings and watercolours of Edward Ardizzone and Quentin Blake. And then there were the richly detailed, highly complex, tableaux of Charles Keeping, Mitsumasa Anno and others.

Books without words offer an alternative, purely visual, way of ‘reading’. When we engage in a pictorial narrative we invest a bit of ourselves in the process, as decoding such texts means creating our own individual version of the story. The artist clearly has an idea in mind, but how we interpret the images produced, based on our own perception and life experiences, may bring forth a range of entirely new meanings.

In addition, with so many children and adults currently on the move across the world, books without words may be able to cross barriers in a way other books cannot, though there will be cultural differences. The Silent Books project on the Italian island of Lampedusa, launched by IBBY (International Board on Books for Young people) in 2012, is a worthy example of this.

Most of all, though, wordless picture books give us the opportunity, and the excuse, to immerse ourselves fully in the pictures, without the distraction of words. Many are just stunningly beautiful works of art in themselves, and for this reason alone they are worth celebrating.

Find out more about wordless picture books for children on Clare's brilliant website: www.wordlessbooks.org

Clare Walters at The Story of Books in Hay-on-Wye

The posters for our #NoWords exhibition were designed by typographic artist and letterpress printer, Alan Kitching

 

#NoWords exhibition at The Story of Books in Hay-on-Wye took place in autumn 2018. We plan to produce a larger project in Wales based on Clare's collection of wordless picture books. Please subscribe to The Story of Books newsletter to receive updates on our projects.