one way to use wordless (and almost wordless) picture books

For one of my volunteer gigs, I sometimes do writing workshops with nine-year-olds. Being encouraged to write completely crazy things sort of frees them (and me) to channel an inner evil villain or idiotic smarty-pants, and we always end up laughing a lot. Not everyone is creative in the same way, though, so when I start talking about storytelling, I often bring in a stack of picture books.

These kids have moved on from picture books. They read chapter books and have for a year or two or three, depending on when reading hit them, and I can see about half of them starting to give up on me a little. “This lady thinks I still read those books,” they’re thinking.

So I talk about storytelling, and how everyone tells a story a little bit differently. Some people like to write it down or type it up. Some people like to tell a story out loud. Some people are visual artists. That kind of thing.

Then I pick up one of the books. Usually I start with Journey by Aaron Becker or Bluebird by Bob Staake, although occasionally, I’ll start with a classic – Tuesday by David Wiesner or Goodnight, Gorilla by Peggy Rathman.   These books only have a few words, if any, but they are amazing examples of storytelling. You find yourself shocked, laughing, and even occasionally teary. And it’s only the pictures showing you.

My point to the kids is this: everyone can tell a story if they find the right medium. Today we might be working on how to tell a story or talk about a character in words, but there are a lot of ways to do it. Heck, if they wanted to do a graphic novel, I’d love that, too. Or a song. Or a podcast. Or an entire book-length fantasy novel. (I know a 4th grader who did that, and I’m telling you, it was better than some of the published books I’ve read.)

The beautiful thing about being nine is that no one is stopping them from any story they want to tell. They haven’t figured out yet that they’re not good at writing. For the most part, they don’t worry about not being able to draw perfect figures. They will just write, using whatever spelling and punctuation comes into their heads. When they stand up and read their short piece, they are proud of what they’ve done.

Wordless or almost wordless picture books can be starting point for teens, adults, and English language learners, too. They don’t usually enter into it with the freedom of a nine year old, but there’s something about NOT having the words written on the page that opens everything up, so that their stories can be freed, too.

For more wordless picture books, check out this Pinterest page.

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