Posted by: Kathy Temean | July 18, 2012

Wordless Picture Books

Wordless picture books contain only pictures and little or no text. They depend entirely on carefully sequenced illustrations to present the story. The illustrations must be highly narrative.

Although wordless picture books are generally aimed at preschoolers (aged 4 to 6), some of them are also intended for older children because they contain complex plot structures, subtle imagery, and sophisticated tone.

Can a wordless book be effective in helping children to learn a language?

“Definitely!” says Dawn Jeffers publisher at Raven Tree Press. “Wordless picture books and picture books with limited words are both beautiful and educational. They help children develop language, creative thinking and enhance future reading and writing skills. Using wordless picture books, children learn that reading follows a left-to-right pattern. They learn that stories generally have a beginning, a middle section and an ending. They also learn to identify details, see cause and effect, make judgements and draw conclusions.”

Educators are using them to teach writing to children and also to help teach non-English speaking kids English. These are some of the reasons publishers have gravitated to “Wordless Picture Books.”

Lucy Cummins & Alexandra Cooper ran a Wordless Picture Book Workshop at the June 2012 NJ-SCBWI Conference. I asked Diana Patton if she would write up something to share with you.

Here’s Diana:

Art Director Lucy Cummins and Senior Editor Alexandra Cooper at Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers ran an enjoyable workshop/talk. They worked as a well-oil machine and worked brightly and efficiently together to present us with lots of good information dotted with generous amounts of humor.

They discussed the characteristics of wordless picture books:

1. Story is easily understood in sequence.
2. Story has a real beginning, a middle, and an end.
3. They speak to a universal experience.
4. Different people can interpret the same book differently.
5. The story guides the reader gently but allows the reader to create their own narrative.
6. The story has boundless appeal.
7. Great page turns.
8. They can be “read” by people who speak any language.
9. Characters whose thoughts and actions “read” very clearly.
10. Story that is full of emotion.
11. Story should be deceptively obvious.

If you don’t need dialogue, if there are lots of active verbs, you may have a wordless picture book in you.

Why do some books work wordlessly?

Alex and Lucy shared excellent examples of this genre of purely visual storytelling and excellent examples of sequential storytelling . We saw:

Peggy Rathmann’s Goodnight, Gorilla
Alexandra Day’s Good Dog, Carl
Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman.
Chris Raschka’s A Ball for Daisy, the 2012 Caldecott Winner
David Wiesner’s FLOTSAM
Jerry Pinkney’s The Lion and the Mouse (also Caldecott Winners 2007 and 2010)
Barbara Lehman’s The Red Book (Caldecott Honor Book)

Pinkney’s The Lion and the Mouse is the awesomely beautiful retelling of an old tale; Lucy emphasized that if you retell a tale, you must have a new take on it. She recommended reading Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics and his Making Comics (interestingly enough, my youngest son Shawn, the game designer, had already given me these books to study!)

Both Lucy and Alexandra stressed the importance of page turners. And of course, they discussed the reasons why your story might be told wordlessly. There should be an element of universality. For example, your imagination runs away with you, or you take a tale everyone knows and do a role reversal, such as in Goodnight, Gorilla. There may be an archetypal character, like a crafty weasel or a playful dog.

Alexandra and Lucy discussed the life cycle of the picture book. The manuscript goes to the editor. If the editor likes it, it goes to the acquisition meeting. If accepted, the editor and the art director select an artist. Thumbnails/ sketches follow. There are editorial meetings and revisions. Then comes the final art and the layout. Eventually there is the first printing and proofs to be approved.

So how do you submit a wordless picture book?

Submit a simple paragraph or two, with illustrators’ prompts. Of course if you are the author/illustrator, you can submit a dummy.

A successful Wordless Picture Book will have a meaning that lingers and makes the reader want a repeat experience and read again. Both Lucy and Alexandra love the stories that have a secondary story, something that is going on in the background.

And guess what? Your “wordless” picture book might have a few words, after all. This especially good if the word(s) have different meanings and add even more to the visuals.

Thank you Diana for taking the time to write up Alex and Lucy’s Workshop on “Wordless Picture Books.” I hope it gives people food for thought.

Talk tomorrow,



  1. As a teacher, wordless books give unique opportunities to find out more about kids’ expressive language, sequencing and inference skills.


  2. Really enjoyed reading your thoughts about wordless picture books, Your list of characteristics is quite thought-provoking especially #8. I love the fact that a wordless picture book can be enjoyed in any language. A child can enjoy it with a grandparent, in one language and a parent in another.


  3. Hi Kathy,
    I happily stumbled across your website and wanted to make a comment and ask a question. I’m a special education teacher for children with autism (K-12). I’ve been collecting and successfully using wordless books with my students for a few years. It’s an incredible, invaluable tool for teaching expressive language!!!

    While using them almost daily, I’ve developed ideas for wordless books, but I don’t know how to get them submitted to be illustrated and published. Can you give me any assistance?

    Thank you!
    Julia Banta


    • hi julia! i know this is from several years ago, but i’m wondering if you received a response to this? i would love to hear what the advice was!


      • Hi Heather,
        Thanks for your followup. I never got a response, but honestly gave up getting an answer or assistance. I still have several children’s books that I’d love to pursue illustration and publication.
        Julie Banta

        Liked by 1 person

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