Books (Mostly) Without Words

Ack! Trying to find good children’s books while your toddlers are running wild through the library shelves? Never fear. We’ve got you covered. My dear friend, fellow Stanford alum, writer, Silicon Valley mom, and book lover extraordinaire, Susan has kindly offered to write regularly for Sweet Peas & Stilettos and share some of her insightful tips on wonderful children’s books with all of us. Thank you so so so much Susan! Here is the first in what I hope is many more great posts from Susan:

I’m a writer, so some of my favorite children’s books are wordless. That’s right. Wordless. Or with just a few words sprinkled among the pages, like chocolate chips.

You see, my two boys are as sharp as Google engineers. If I change a sentence in their favorite book, or cut a paragraph or so – because, guys, it’s really, really late, and I mean it! – they don’t hesitate to take me down a notch. They think a book should say the same thing every time.

But something wonderful happens when we can’t depend on printed words to tell a story. My children and I have to do it ourselves.

In my favorite wordless books, the illustrators have risen to the challenge. Some have gone a little crazy with the freedom of it all, crowding their pages with drawings, such as a hundred hamsters running rampant through a bedroom. Others go the opposite route – seeding subtle clues to reveal the emotions behind one “simple” story, such as never showing a parent in a lonely boy’s house. Either way, it usually takes many, many readings to understand everything that’s going on.

That makes a nearly wordless book wonderfully flexible. It’s like my perfect little black dress – I can dress it up or down, wear it on fat or thin days, and it’s still fashionable, year after year.

Trying to entertain both my boys? My toddler can search for a red-haired girl on every page, while my five-year old asks why a city crowd is made up of people with lots of different skin colors. Racing to naptime? We follow just the path of a Santa Claus motorcyclist through a busy German town. But if we’re stuck on a plane for hours, we figure out exactly how that town changes over a year.

I like being able to describe storylines in a few words, or in hundreds. Best of all, my children can narrate the story to me. And what they see changes every time. We’re not just reading. We’re creating. As a writer, that’s where the fun lies.

10 Minutes till Bedtime, by Peggy Rathman. A troupe of hamsters parades through a boy’s house at bedtime. Many of the hamsters have their own “shtick,” which children can follow from page to page, such as the hamster always kicking a soccer ball or the one always climbing up high. It’s also fun to find the visual references to Rathman’s more well-known book, Goodnight Gorilla. As a bonus, the website shows the photographs taken by one of the tourist hamsters!

Wow! City!, by Robert Neubecker. It’s fun to find red-haired Izzy on every page in these books about a little girl from a mountain town who goes to the big city. The illustrations vibrate with energy and color. Each page is chock-full of people and objects for kids to notice, including people of many different ethnicities. It’s also refreshing to have a book with a close father and daughter relationship.

Rainstorm, by Barbara Lehman. A lonely boy finds a secret tunnel under his house that leads to a lighthouse – and to a group of other children who become his friends. The clues about the differences between the children are understated – the lonely boy lives in a large house with many toys, while his friends’ clothes are worn – but show that friendship can overcome many obstacles.

In the Town All Year ‘Round, by Susanne Berner Rotraut. The four sections of this book follow the changes in a German town over a fall, winter, spring, and summer. Each section opens with a page suggesting specific characters or plots to follow, but the whimsical drawings are so wonderfully detailed that you’ll find hundreds of other things to notice as well.

Susan Fry is a writer and mother in the San Francisco Bay Area. She’s written for Stanford Magazine, salon, the San Jose Mercury News, and many other publications.

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