As a picture-book writer, but not an illustrator, I can say this: wordless picture books stand tall as the medium’s purest expression. If you don’t believe me, ask Charlie Chaplin what he thought about the difference between silent movies and talkies. “Dialogue, to my way of thinking,” he once observed, “always slows action, because action must wait on words.” That’s true of picture books, too. Ditch words (sniffle), gain immediacy.
The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, in Amherst, Massachusetts, has a gorgeous, provocative, and just plain delightful exhibition devoted to the subject, featuring works by 22 author-illustrators. My flickering-silent-movie comparison notwithstanding, many of the works in “Speechless: The Art of Wordless Picture Books” occupy the cutting edge of children’s publishing, and no one here is looking in the rearview mirror.
Some are visual narratives that manipulate time and perspective, occasionally mirroring movie tricks but with design elements unique to the page. Peter Spier’s Rain (1982) is a simple celebration of a brother and sister’s afternoon spent splashing through a storm, its graphic rhythms mirroring the children’s moods,while Shaun Tan’s The Arrival (2006) uses similar techniques to tell an epic and surreal immigration saga. One goes small; one goes big. Both surprise; both tickle the eye.
Others dispense with conventional narrative and toy with more abstract concepts, such as shape, visual counterpoint, and perspective. Snail, Where Are You? (1962), by the late Tomi Ungerer, is a witty tease, asking children to spot a snail’s spiral shell in ocean waves or an elephant’s coiled trunk. Photographer Tana Hoban’s Circles, Triangles, and Squares (1974) spies those titular shapes in the real world: circles in a stack of sewer pipes or a tipped square represented by a STOP sign. Any halfway decent picture book teaches the art of looking, but these are master classes.
Several works in the exhibition exploit the physicality of books, such as Suzy Lee’s Wave (2008), a personal favorite, which turns the gutter (the center binding where the two pages that make up a spread meet) into a boundary between the black-and-white world of a little girl at the beach and the blue of the sea that both tempts and taunts her—until, well, splash!
The curator is author-illustrator David Wiesner, himself a master of purely visual narrative and a three-time Caldecott Medal winner, for Tuesday (1991), The Three Pigs (2001), and Flotsam (2006). If at times there’s a show-offy element of “Look, Ma, no words” in the art shown here, there’s also something more profound at play—and I do mean play. As Wiesner puts it in an accompanying essay, by pruning sentences, with their inevitable nudges toward fixed meaning, “the artists invite children to make the stories their own.” It’s an invitation adults should accept, too. —Bruce Handy
“Speechless: The Art of Wordless Picture Books” is on at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art through December 5