Why wordless books for children are getting better, popular

For many of us, large-page picture books were the first steps to reading. As words become sentences and paragraphs, illustrations are crowded out. But a lot is happening in the picture book realm, especially the wordless books that bypass the traditional collaboration between author and illustrator and tell stories only through illustrations.

In the last few months alone, children’s book publisher Pratham has released two outstanding wordless books. Pankaj Saikias The Theater of Ghosts is set in Majuli, Assam and follows young Jhunali and Rimjhim on their journey towards a traditional bhaona drama. The other is Rajiv Eipes duggawhich follows the (un)remarkable life of a stray dog ​​who suffers an accident and is nursed back to health.

“Overall, we’ve been seeing a lot more[wordless books]since 2017,” says Bijal Vachharajani, editor-in-chief at Pratham Books. She is currently working on a number of such books with animator Aithihya Ashok Kumar and multimedia artist Labonie Roy. Other children’s book publishers such as Tulika and Ektara also rely on this niche segment.

A defining moment came in 2017 when Ammachi’s glasses by illustrator Priya Kuriyan, published by Tulika, was shortlisted for the Children’s Book of the Year award announced by Publishing Next. The shortlist for the story of a chubby grandmother who wakes up in the morning and can’t find her glasses was a feat: a book from a niche segment outperformed titles that clung to a mainstream understanding of children’s books.

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“Around the world, people are still wondering why (these types of picture books) don’t have text and what children get out of it,” says Canato Jimo, illustrator and art director at Pratham Books. “But it’s now becoming a popular, visual and artistic form of storytelling.”

First of all, wordless books find favor in a world shaped by geographic mobility and multilingual families. Now the same book can be “read to” a child by grandparents who speak different languages, or by a nanny who may only be able to read and write in a completely different language. With such booksbhasha ka koi bandhan nahi hai; Words se mukti hai (Language is no longer a barrier),” says Sushil Shukla, Hindi poet, editor and publisher of Bhopal-based Ektara, which publishes illustrative children’s picture books.

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Every page of Ammachi’s Glasses, for example, is packed with detail and visual humor, drama, and suspense: what will Ammachi do next as she stumbles along without her glasses? While the title could refer to Ammachi, the heroine could just as easily be Nani, Baa, Paati, or Bamma.

Kuriyan notes that “the interaction between parent and child when ‘reading’ a wordless book is very different” from that of a text-based one. In the latter, the parents only read the words of the author. In the first case, the parents ask the child what they see, and the child tells the story.

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A page from Pankaj Saikia's Theater of Ghosts.

A page from Pankaj Saikia’s Theater of Ghosts.
(Pratham Books)

In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s the National Book Trust had published some memorable wordless books – Debashish Debs The story of a mango and Pulak Biswas’ Busy Ants, for example, are now in their 10th edition. Kuriyan remembers Manjula Padmanabhans A visit to the city market. “This one stands out because it was about lived reality. (Others were) just animal and folk stories,” he says salon Contributor known for works such as The Poop Book and Around the world with chili. Each page in Padmanabhan’s 15 pages is filled with details depicting the India of a few decades.

“The same story … is looked at from different angles, which supports cognitive development,” says Aarti Bakshi, developmental psychologist and SEL (social, emotional learning) consultant at SAAR Education, a Mumbai-based consortium that provides educational resources for children in the 3-14 age group. This introduces the child to different worldviews and builds empathy. Also, “the expectation of art and literature is that they’re open to different interpretations, and wordless (spaces) are nice ways to bring the emphasis back to it,” Shukla adds.

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Bakshi notes that illustrators are currently placing an emphasis on “factual detail (in their work)…developing the (child’s) ability to correlate.” They “may play around with color, but[they don’t compromise]on accuracy,” she adds.

Eipe does exactly that dugga– Color fuels emotion and action as sepia dusty streets give way to grey, gloomy hospital scenes, with lighter hues only seeping in again as Dugga the dog begins to heal. The panels in Dugga have a rich sensibility for graphic novels. Eipe encourages the visual literacy of its audience, ensuring that wordless books can appeal to larger demographics and become an early introduction to the appreciation of art.

“Pratham’s emphasis is on visual education,” says Jimo. “(Sometimes) we got rid of (text) because it felt… redundant,” he adds. This happens when an illustrator has a “very strong visual and narrative sense”.

“For many years, illustrations were considered purely decorative,” says Shukla. With wordless books, however, illustrators no longer play second fiddle to writers. They are finally being recognized as specialized storytellers in their own right.

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