Books with brilliant pictures and not too many words
Published on: 23 October 2022
Our Writer-Illustrator in Residence Nick Sharratt shares some great books with very few words.
There are loads of truly amazing books out there, where the illustrations are the stars of the show and the words play a supporting role or are even absent altogether. These kinds of books are for children of all ages – and adults too. There’s so much to be gained from looking at picture books where entertaining stories and stimulating, often quite sophisticated ideas are conveyed almost entirely through tremendous, absorbing imagery, with words kept to a minimum. Such books are ideal for beginner readers and those who struggle to engage with text: the pictures will grab their attention, arouse their curiosity and hook them in, and at the same time provide lots of helpful clues to what those actual words are saying.
And as a grown-up reading to a pre-reader, it can be wonderfully liberating, as well as an excellent bonding experience, to share a book with great illustrations and not too much text. It frees you up to talk about the story yourselves and to have fun poring over the images together, swapping your opinions about just what’s going on in the pictures, and taking delight in spotting all kinds of things that aren’t mentioned in the written bits at all.
Here are some recommendations for books with little or no text, a mix of long-time classics and ones that I’ve only recently discovered. They’re all incredibly rewarding ‘reads’.
Wordless picture books
The Midnight Fair by Gideon Sterer and Mariachiara Di Georgio follows a group of woodland animals who enjoy the fairground rides one night, when no humans are around. Magical fun, with a beautiful ending.
The Snowman by Raymond Briggs. Quite simply a masterpiece. A book filled with exquisitely communicated emotions and not a single word needed.
Set on a building site, Dog on a Digger by Kate Prendergast is a gripping story told in realistic pencil drawings, that cleverly combines exciting drama with tender moments. I love that the canine hero wears a high visibility jacket.
Clown by Quentin Blake is the wordless, action-packed tale of what happens when a toy clown is dumped in a rubbish bin and then escapes. A really good one for discussing what’s happening in each individual picture, and Clown himself is a gentle-looking character – he’s not one of the scary type clowns!
Two wordless picture books that I reckon would work brilliantly with slightly older readers are Flotsam by David Wiesner and The Secret Box by Barbara Lehman. Although the artwork styles are very different, they share a distinctly surreal, dreamlike quality, where intriguing stories are told within stories. The images call for a lot of scrutiny and are tremendously satisfying to unravel.
Picture books with minimal text
Using an African setting, The Lion and the Mouse by Jerry Pinkney masterfully tells one of Aesop’s fables with beautiful watercolour and pencil illustrations, the only words being animal noises. The visual story is so strong the book doesn’t even need a title on the front cover!
Ed Vere's two-word book Banana! is a brilliant one to read aloud with little ones – it’s huge fun varying the way you say ‘Banana’ to match the different expressions on the monkey’s face.
Hug by Jez Alborough is a three-word book, this time with a chimp in search of – you’ve guessed it – a hug. All the other animals are getting hugs, but not Bobo. He repeats the lone word ‘Hug’ on nearly every spread, and you’ll find it impossible to say out loud without injecting feeling into it. Of course, there’s a happy ending when Bobo and his mum are eventually reunited and … have a big hug!
Big by Sav Akyüz has hardly any words as it takes you along on one little boy’s adventure when his wish to be much bigger comes true. It’s a fabulous adventure (at least to begin with) and the illustrations don’t need the addition of words for a small person to imagine being in the boy’s situation and experiencing the thrills and spills of getting bigger and bigger and bigger…
In Bork by Rhys Kitson one dog says ‘bork’, another says ‘bark’ and yet another says ‘waf waf’, but despite these differences they all get along. You’ll learn to make dog noises in eight languages!
Fox and Goldfish by Frith Williams and Nils Pieters is actually about Goldfish coming to the end of his life. Before his friend dies, Fox is determined to take him on one last extraordinary adventure. The exuberant artwork and extremely minimal text could make this book a useful tool in raising the subject of dying with children.
Books with lots of things going on in the illustrations
In Usborne’s 1001 things to spot books, illustrated by Teri Gower, each spread is filled with a delightfully busy scene. Whilst you’re hunting for the suggested items (the five ice creams, nine pigeons and one waiter in a street café scene picture, for example) you’ll come across numerous other points of interest too.
I adored Richard Scarry’s books as a child and they’re still going strong. Try What do People do all day? or Busy Busy World for fantastic pictures packed with detail that will captivate the youngsters of today.
Choices by Roozeboos takes a positive (and very stylish) look at all the possibilities confronting a little girl on a trip to a lido. Very inclusive, with a wonderful summery feel about it.
Oh, heck! I’m going to pop Pippa Goodhart’s You Choose in here too, illustrated by yours truly, because of the hundreds of times both of us have been told by parents and carers (usually in rather wry tones) how much it extends bedtime reading sessions, due to all the conversation initiated by the pictures.
Books where the readers can see things the characters can’t
Rosie’s Walk by Pat Hutchins is the classic example of this kind of book. Rosie the hen blithely goes about her business, oblivious to the mean fox who’s out to get her. The words tell one story and the pictures tell another, much to the reader’s amusement.
Frances Stickely and Eamonn O’Neill do something similar in Not a Cat in Sight. Mouse is having a splendidly cat-free day … or is he? The breezy verses and jolly pictures make this a super book for sharing.
This Book is out of Control by Richard Byrne has two children on one page attempt to play with a toy fire engine via a remote control, whilst unbeknownst to them, a dog on the other page is responding to their commands. The reader can see what the characters can’t, and even gets to take over the control and watch the results. A very funny book.
In The Elephant Detectives by Ged Adamson, Alan’s elephant has gone missing and Edie – an Elephant Detective – helps him look for him. It’s extremely satisfying to spot the large elephant on every spread whilst the characters search high and low.
We can see the camouflaged jellyfish hiding under the waterline and behind icebergs in The Search for the Giant Arctic Jellyfish by Chloe Savage, but the poor crew, having travelled all that way, can’t.
In The Wall in the Middle of the Book by Jon Agee, a knight on one side of the wall is blissfully aware of the dangerous goings-on behind him, until he suddenly requires rescuing by someone from the ‘bad’ side of the wall.
Check out our booklist of wordless picture books!
Which books with minimal text do you particularly enjoy reading with children? Let us know on Twitter!
Meet our latest Writer in Residence
Every six months, BookTrust appoints a new Writer in Residence to write blogs, run competitions and give us their own unique perspective on the world of children's books. Our current Writer in Residence is Michelle Robinson.