(published in the News and Observer, July 7, 2018)
In March I met with Mary Andrews and Nancy Zeman, the founders of Family Reading Partners (FRP) to share new wordless, or near wordless books.
I’ve recommended wordless books for years. They increase imaginative opportunities, allow to feel successful and create family sharing adventure. They are crucial to the success of FRP.
Both Andrews and Zeman believe family sharing establishes life-long reading and furthers communication. Zeman exemplifies their dedication with a story about Andrews, whom she secretly nominated last year for the Toyota Family Teacher of the Year. Andrews won, and Zeman set up an event so that a Toyota representative could deliver an oversized $20,000 check to further the programs of FRP. He had a hard time presenting it because Mary fussed him out for interrupting her read-aloud session.
FRP shares books with adolescent parents, parents of newborns, underserved families with preschool and school age children, refugee families, and mothers who are recovering from addictions. They go wherever they’re invited, return for months, and sometimes years.
In informal ways, they deliver information about how literacy increases academic success and suggest methods to encourage meaningful conversations. They model techniques with books and leave these books for family sharing because “the intimacy of the voice of a loved one penetrates the heart and imagination in lasting ways.”
Here are some guidelines for choosing wordless books that succeed:
1. Choose books with “longevity.”
These books that work with a toddler and an older children will be read over and over. In Mo Willems’ “A Busy Creature’s Day Eating!” (HMH, ages 2-6), the book’s horizontal pages provide plenty of room to view a brightly-colored creature’s alphabetic feasting adventures. Toddlers can identify foods and objects while slightly older children will recognize how alphabet letters correspond to what the protagonist eats. Finally, a child will grow into the humor. There’s disgusting alliterative levity, like “huge hot-sauce halibut hoagie.” The alphabet is also a silly organizing structure. The creature’s eating turns to tummy ache and then P signals a run for the “potty,” and V stand for “vomit” before the exhausted creature is “zonked.”
2. Back matter enhances discussions.
Brendan Wenzel’s near wordless “Hello Hello” (Chronicle, ages 1-5) has a visually strong layout that encourages animal comparisons using concepts like size and color. The back matter identifies all animals and the author writes of his purpose, his fear of their endangerment.
3. Look for strong emotions
This provides dramatic tension and understanding of the plot. Matthew Cordell’s Caldecott Award-winning “Wolf in the Snow” (Feiwel and Friends, ages 3-6) has only sounds in the text, all of which are fun for dramatization. Emotions begin before the title page, showing the warm home of a girl with a red coat and her cheerful journey to school as snow falls. Opposing pictures show the girl and a wolf family. Succeeding pages show the fierceness of wolves, worsening snow, the wolf pup separated from his family and the girl finding him. Expressions of both girl and wolf pup show fear, then trust and bonding. There follows a powerful parallel story when the wolf family saves rescue the girl and aids her warm homecoming. Few words, dramatic illustrations and so many opportunities for discussion.
4. Color can reveal story.
Stephanie Graegin’s “Little Fox in the Forest” (Schwartz and Wade) allows a small child to identify colors and objects. An older child will see how blue tones represent the sadness of a young girl whose stuffed fox toy is taken by a real fox. When she enters an enchanted world, vivid colors show the vitality of a caring community. In addition to color contrasts and their meanings, there are powerful discussion to be had about compassion and taking what doesn’t belong to you.
5. Sensitive issues initiate discussion.
Initiate important conversations with a book like Kerascoet’s “I Walk with Vanessa: A Story About A Simple Act of Kindness” (Schwartz & Wade). A new girl comes to school and is bullied by a boy. Empathetic peers make sure she’s included. A great way to speak about kindness, friendship, building bridges and inclusivity.
6. Look for strong sense of story, characters and relationship.
Kate Predergast’s “Dog on a Digger,”(Candlewick) shows strong relationships between a construction site worker, his dog, the owner of a nearby snack bar and her puppy. Affection is clear from the dog’s first morning kisses to his rescue of the puppy. The illustrations are primarily black and white, but touches of yellow highlight the dog, his owner and the excavator. The dog is clearly the hero. His sensitive hearing locates the missing pup trapped in a drainage ditch. He draws his master’s attention to the digger and bravely climbs in when it’s lowered to save his canine friend.
How to read a wordless book
A few questions start wordless book conversations with young readers:
▪ What do you notice?
▪ What can you tell me about the story/character/feelings?
▪ Look and Find: Find and label objects
▪ What are the characters feeling?
“Aquarium,” Cynthia Alonso (Chronicle, ages 4-6)
“I Got It!,” David Wiesner (Houghton, ages 4-7)
“Small Things,” Mel Tregonning (Pajama Press, ages 7-10)
Family Reading Partners
For more on the Chapel Hill-based program, go to familyreadingpartners.org.