I have been extremely happy to help a couple of different customers in the last few weeks who have come in to the bookshop specifically looking for wordless picture books. Why so happy? Because over the last eight years I have generally found that wordless picture books, no matter how visually stunning, hilarious or touching or award-winning, can be a really tough sell.

And that’s a shame.

Now, I should be quick to point out that there is no lack of interest in these books on the part of children. It’s the adult shoppers accompanying the kids who almost always poo-poo the idea of taking one of these treasures home. Even if they profess admiration for the artwork, they tend to immediately dismiss it on the grounds that they want to encourage their children to “actually read” or that their child is “already reading,” as if that automatically means that a wordless book is a step backward.

Not so, I say!

For one thing, to say that there is no value–intellectual, developmental, spiritual, or otherwise–in taking the time to look at pieces of artwork is like saying that we should stop taking kids (or adults) to art museums and galleries. There is no worth? Really? And believe me, there is some stunning artwork being published, with or without words, in books for children.

For another thing, to dismiss out of hand the educational value of a wordless story is to “out” yourself as an adult who has forgotten how to look at things with a child’s eye. Sadly, that is most of us, at one time or another.

Have you ever noticed how a kid who hasn’t started reading fluently on his or her own will often open a book and pretend to read it? I see it all the time in the bookshop. An adorable scene: a little one turning pages, pointing to things in the pictures, making up the story on the fly. With or without words on the page, this is a wonderful exercise for a child’s burgeoning literacy.

Being able to recognize and empathize with facial expressions and other visual cues related to the story are very important to developing reading comprehension. Let me emphasize that word again: comprehension. Learning to read (and read well) is not just about being able to sound out longer and longer words. It’s about fully comprehending what you are reading, in all its detail and nuance.

When a child reads a wordless picture book on his own, he generally will not just flip through the pages impatiently and put it down, like an adult browsing in the bookstore or library. He will pore over every picture, go back and forth, following the thread of the story, seeing if he missed anything, filling in the blanks with his own imagination. Sometimes, depending on the illustrations, one can experience different stories with the same book at different times. Reading like this (yes, reading) is amazingly interactive.

Even outside the context of  reading skills as we usually define them, developing visual literacy is something that is becoming more and more important for children growing up in an image-saturated society. Being able to understand visual cues, recognize archetypal or iconic images, and articulate what you are seeing are all skills that strengthen your ability to think critically about images you are presented with as a consumer and also makes you capable of creating and communicating with images effectively as a student, a teacher, an artist, a business person, or practically any role you may play in society.

Here are a few of my personal favorite wordless picture books:

David Wiesner received the 1991 Caldecott Medal for Tuesday, the whimsical account of a Tuesday when frogs go airborne on their lily pads, float through the air, and explore the nearby houses while their inhabitants sleep.Target age group 5-8 years, but enjoyable for all ages.

Winner of the 2012 Caldecott Medal, A Ball for Daisy is yet another medal winner by Chris Raschka, one of my all-time favorite illustrators. Any child who has ever had a beloved toy break will relate to Daisy’s anguish when her favorite ball is destroyed by a bigger dog. In the tradition of his nearly wordless picture book Yo! Yes?,  Raschka explores in pictures the joy and sadness that having a special toy can bring. Raschka’s signature swirling, impressionistic illustrations and his affectionate story will particularly appeal to young dog lovers and teachers and parents who have children dealing with the loss of something special. Target age group 3-7 years.

In illustrations of rare detail and surprise, The Red Book by Barbara Lehman crosses oceans and continents to deliver one girl into a new world of possibility, where a friend she’s never met is
waiting. And as with the best of books, at the conclusion of the story, the journey is not over.

This book is about a book. A magical red book without any words. When you turn the pages you’ll experience a new kind of adventure through the power of story.

A Caldecott Honor Book
Target age group 4-8

“The author’s simply drawn art…is appropriate to a pleasing puzzle that will challenge young imaginations and intellects.” –Horn Book