Twenty suggestions of wordless or nearly wordless books, with a quick-look list, details and links, and notes for teachers below. For further reading, we have a Goodreads bookshelf that includes even more choices.
- The Arrival
- A Ball for Daisy
- Bow-Wow Bugs a Bug
- A Boy, a Dog, and a Frog
- Cool Cat
- a day, a dog
- In the Pond
- Last Night
- The Lion and the Mouse
- Owly & Wormy: Friends All Aflutter
- The Red Book
- Robot Dreams
- Sector 7
- Where’s Walrus?
- You Can’t Take a Balloon into the Museum of Fine Arts
Note: Because these are wordless books, the credited individuals are the illustrators.
Details & Links
The Arrival by Shaun Tan. 2007. Scholastic. (Reading level: Grade 4+.)
This stunning, innovative work about moving to a new country has been dubbed a “picture-novel” by several of our students. This tale focuses on adults, a type of student who may be glad to step away from the animals and toddlers of most level-appropriate books. Vignettes within the larger narrative provide opportunities for writing stories of various lengths and allow sophisticated readers to ponder the social and political reasons for emigration.
A Ball For Daisy by Chris Raschka. 2011. Random House. (Reading level: K+.)
Raschka’s seemingly casual style conveys great emotional nuance in this story about love and loss. A small dog’s joy playing with her ball is arrested when a playmate breaks it; somehow just a few brushstrokes convey as much detail about Daisy’s feelings as an essay on the five stages of grief. Students dealing with people and possessions left behind may be comforted to find they are not alone – and sometimes, such experiences have happy endings. Winner of the 2012 Caldecott Medal.
Bow-Wow Bugs a Bug by Mark Newgarden and Megan Montague Cash. 2007. Harcourt. (Reading level: Grade 1+.)
With strong lines and solid graphics, this seemingly-straightforward tale of a small dog in hot pursuit of a smaller bug goes off the rails as people blow away in the wind and the bug begins to pursue the dog. The story remains linear but presents some surreal challenges to the writing skills of older students.
A Boy, a Dog, and a Frog by Mercer Mayer. 1967. Dial. (Reading level: K+.)
This title is the first of several wordless books Mayer created starring these three characters. Students may struggle with narrative point of view because Mayer’s illustrations convey the experience through the eyes of each character. However, this book starts the friendship with an interesting twist, as the boy fails to catch the frog, only to have the frog ultimately seek him out, making it worthwhile for students adjusting to a new school and new classmates. (Series.)
The Boy, the Bear, the Baron, the Bard by Gregory Rogers. 2004. Porter. (Reading level: Grade 2+.)
Depending on the curriculum of a student’s country of origin, even the youngest may have heard of Shakespeare or his stories. This tale of a boy who kicks his soccer ball into an abandoned theater only to be transported to Elizabethan England is advanced in both narrative structure and in the gorier details of life at that time, but the silly fun of the central story helps most young readers engage at their level.
Chalk by Bill Tomson. 2010. Cavendish. (Reading level: Grade 1+.)
“T. Rex” is often one of the first English words young students master, and Chalk gives them plenty of opportunity to deploy it when a group of children discover a plastic dinosaur holding a bag of chalk. Beyond the obvious dinosaur appeal, young artists will also be pulled in to this story of drawings that come to life, and the photo-realistic illustrations allow students to practice describing texture, lighting, and more.
Clementina’s Cactus by Ezra Jack Keats. 1982. Viking. (Reading level: K+.)
Keats’ skill as an illustrator is highlighted in this last work published before his death when he manages to create an image of a girl, her father, and a shrunken cactus just as fascinating as Clementina seems to find that lumpy plant. An important part of the story happens page when a night-time storm rejuvenates the cactus and brings a colorful surprise the next day
Cool Cat by Nonny Hogrogian. 2009. Porter. (Reading level: Grade 1+.)
Its fur may be black and white, the setting may be brown, but that doesn’t stop a cat from infusing color into its world through paintbrush, cloth, and friendly assistants. The wordless cooperation of different species may particularly support students struggling to make friends in a foreign language and to make meaningful contributions to their new community.
a day, a dog by Gabrielle Vincent. 2000. Front. (Reading level: Grade 4+.)
Vincent’s charcoal sketches are sparse, the emotions difficult, and the page count high. This story about a dog thrown out of a moving car is not for younger readers as it follows him through the rest of an upsetting day, but older ones struggling with a limited vocabulary may be comforted by how much can be expressed with so little.
In the Pond by Ermanno Cristini and Luigi Puricelli. 1984. Picture Book Studio. (Reading level: Grade K+.)
Although this book does not provide students with a linear narrative as a framework for their writing, it must be included for several reasons. Firstly, the compositions are crisp and simple, but the plants and animals within those compositions are richly detailed, opening the door to practicing descriptive writing. Secondly, it provides a scientist’s view of pond ecology for those students uninterested in fictional narratives.
Last Night by Hyewon Yum. 2008. Farrar. (Reading level: Grade 1+.).
Like Maurice Sendak’s Max and countless children both before and since, this little girl is sent to her room as punishment, falling asleep and working through her experience through the metaphoric language of dreams. The linocut illustrations may prove difficult for younger readers to interpret individually, but taken as a whole, Yum’s story is conveyed clearly from the emotional perspective of the child.
The Lion and the Mouse by Jerry Pinkney. 2009. Little. (Reading level: K+.)
Rushing through this retelling of Aesop’s fable will not serve readers well, as every inch is given over to telling the story in Pinkney’s motion-filled watercolors, including the copyright page. Varying the perspective, width of field, background, and panel choices keep the story moving through richer detail than the original text provides.
Mirror by Jeannie Baker. 2010. Candlewick Press. (Reading level: Grade 1+.)
Two parallel tales set in Australia and Morocco are physically separated by a unique book-binding. This will allow beginning writers to focus on one story at a time, while more advanced students can experiment with separate yet intersecting plots. No matter which approach a reader or writer takes, the richly detailed collages yield surprises through multiple readings, encouraging a motivated student to dig deeper.
Oink by Arthur Geisert. 1991. Houghton. (Reading level: K+.)
The limited palette of Geisert’s etchings focus the reader’s attention squarely on the misadventures of a litter of piglets. The plot is one of the most direct, and the barnyard setting familiar to readers from many cultures, making this an excellent first selection for new students. Other wordless books by Geisert, including Oops and Hogwash pursue his porcine preoccupation in a more cartoonish style, with storylines that may be better used with more fluent students.
Owly and Wormy: Friends All Aflutter by Andy Runton. 2011. Simon & Schuster. (Reading level: Grade 2+.)
The closest book to a traditional graphic novel on this list, Owly’s stories often appeal to students who feel the picture book format is too young for them. Here, Owly and Wormy continue their backyard-nature investigations by creating a butterfly garden. Their disappointment when only caterpillars show up allows most students to correct the characters’ misunderstanding of science. A few symbols appear in word bubbles, encouraging students to include dialogue in their writing. (Series.)
The Red Book by Barbara Lehman. 2007. Houghton Mifflin. (Reading level: Grade 1+.)
Lehman’s signature style lends clarity to a meta-narrative tale told from two perpectives. A city girl finds a book and quickly realizes that the boy in the book is just as aware of her as she is of him. The usual Lehman twist at the end may be difficult for some students to write clearly as girl and book become part of each others’ story, but the rest of this work makes that worthwhile.
Robot Dreams by Sara Varon. 2007. First Second. (Reading level: Grade 3+.)
Yet another tale of unlikely friends – this time a dog and his mail-order, kit-built robot – both plot and ending are emotionally complicated, belying the child-pleasing characters and style of illustration. The friends are separated for much of the story, as well, which will provide young readers a choice about point of view in their writing.
Sector 7 by David Wiesner. 1999. Clarion. (Reading level: Grade 3+.)
Wiesner’s books epitomize the complexity and dream-like nature that illustrations can achieve when not bound by the conventions of language. This may seem to make them a poor choice for this list, but they consistently inspire young writers to rise to that challenge. This time, Wiesner’s tale of an Empire State Building field trip that discovers access to a hidden world may further delight those students familiar with Rick Riordan’s The Last Olympian.
Where’s Walrus? by Stephen Savage. 2011. Scholastic. (Reading level: K+.)
The story and title may have been inspired by the Where’s Waldo series, but there the similarity ends, as zookeeper pursues pinniped throughout a series of clean, crisp, computer illustrations. Reminiscent of Syd Hoff’s work, each page shows the walrus hiding in plain sight among the gray flannel and fedora-wearing denizens of a midcentury city. Silly and engaging without deploying the difficult-to-narrate twists of many wordless books.
You Can’t Take a Balloon Into the Museum of Fine Arts by Jacqueline Preiss Weitzman. 2002. Dial. (Reading level: Grade 1+.)
Boston serves as a new backdrop to a story Weitzman originally set at the Met in New York, as a girl visits the MFA with her grandparents and a wayward green balloon. The details clearly set the story in an around the museum; the significant building addition since the book was created may provide an opening to take the story further. Teachers may also work with students to learn local terms and locations.
English Language Learners (ELLs) challenge a teacher to seek out books with simple language but aimed at a more emotionally mature, cognitively advanced audience. The illustrations of more advanced picture books could provide excellent support to such students, but often are designed as books for an adult and child to share, which allows them to use more advanced vocabulary or grammar than a beginning reader of any age can understand alone. One solution when designing a curriculum for ELL students is to incorporate wordless books as extended writing prompts.
Above is an annotated bibliography of twenty wordless or nearly-wordless books (a few have onomatopoetic animal or machine noises) for use with ELL students. The first selection criteria was that the text follow a fairly linear narrative so that students still learning to conjugate verbs would be able to used a single verb tense with perhaps a few time markers such as “earlier,” or “at the same time.” Most wordless books include a twist at the end – that is one of the few opportunities for traditional literary conventions in that format – and a few of these are included here, which may require some pre-teaching to prepare students to use the language to express an unusual idea. Barbara Lehman’s The Red Book is a good example of this challenge, but her work is otherwise ideal for this use and merits inclusion.
Wordless books provide a high-interest writing exercise for students of all ages. Depending on the illustration style, the book may provide the basics of plot and character, the details of appearance, or even the nuance of emotion. Ask beginning ELLs to describe the plot line and practice their basic vocabulary. Challenge advanced ELL students to use story-telling conventions such as flash-back (verb tenses), shifting points of view (subject-verb agreement), and symbolism (figurative language). This allows a single book to be used in a classroom with multiple fluency levels and even multiple ages.
Many of the stories also tackle issues most important to recently-immigrated students: culture, family, making new friends, and loss. However, except for Shaun Tan’s The Arrival, this list avoids books that are too obviously about the subject. As teachers, we want to allow students to address the material on their own terms and not feel as if they are being pigeon-holed into an immigrant identity.