Say it with pictures: “Speechless” at Eric Carle Museum celebrates wordless children’s books

  • An illustration from “Time Flies” by Eric Rohmann, 1994, oil on paper and masonite board, greets visitors to a reading alcove at the exhibit “Speechless: The Art of Wordless Picture Books” at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. Pictured are Kaitlin Miceli-Boucher and her children Sienna, 13 months, and Phoenix, 4, of France.  STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Avigayil Schutzman, 8, of New York draws at a workstation at the “Speechless” exhibit at the Eric Carle Museum. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • A panel from “The Farmer and the Clown” by Marla Frazee, 2014, gouache and black prisma colored pencil on paper, at the exhibit “Speechless” at the Eric Carle Museum. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Ellen Keiter, chief curator at the Eric Carle Museum, talks about the watercolor and gouache illustrations from “The Grey Lady and the Strawberry Snatcher,” a 1981 Caldecott Honor book. The artwork is part of “Speechless: The Art of Wordless Picture Books” at the museum. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Avigayil Schutzman, 8, of New York draws at a work station at the exhibit “Speechless” at the Eric Carle Museum. The image behind the table is taken from “Draw!” by Raúl Colón, whose work is featured in the show. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • A half dozen silver prints from “Circles, Triangles and Squares” by Tana Hoban are part of “Speechless: The Art of Wordless Picture Books” at the Eric Carle Museum. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • An illustration from “Wave” by Suzy Lee forms one backdrop to a drawing table at “Speechless: The Art of Wordless Picture Books” at the Eric Carle Museum. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Elisheva Schutzman, 11, of New York did this panel drawing during a recent visit to “Speechless: The Art of Wordless Picture Books” at the Eric Carle Museum. At top is the cover of “The Lion and the Mouse” by Jerry Pinkney, 2004. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • David Wiesner, the curator of “Speechless” at the Eric Carle Museum, was intrigued as a child by these wordless pages in the 1952 book “The Provensen Animal Book.” That’s Wiesner’s copy of the book in the exhibition. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • An original charcoal pencil on paper drawing from the 1932 book “What Whiskers Did” by Ruth Carroll, the first wordless children’s book published in the U.S. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Cover of “The Lion and the Mouse” by Jerry Pinkney, 2004, pencil and watercolor on paper. It’s part of “Speechless: The Art of Wordless Picture Books” at the Eric Carle Museum. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • An illustration from “Draw!” by Raúl Colón, a 2014 book that’s included in “Speechless: The Art of Wordless Picture Books” at the Eric Carle Museum in Amherst. TAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • An illustration from “The Silver Pony” by Lynd Ward, 1973, gouache on illustration board. It’s one of the earlier wordless picture books included in “Speechless” at the Eric Carle Museum. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • An image from “Draw!” by Raúl Colón, a wordless story about a boy who creates his own adventures about Africa by using his pencils and pens. Image courtesy Eric Care Museum

  • An image from “The Arrival” by Shaun Tan, a wordless graphic novel about immigrants moving to a new country. It’s part of the exhibit “Speechless” at the Eric Carle Museum. Image courtesy Eric Carle Museum

  • Ruth Carroll’s “What Whiskers Did,” from 1932, was the first completely wordless book published in the United States. Image courtesy Eric Carle Museum

  • “Wave,” by Suzy Lee, tells a tale about a little girl’s day at the beach.  Courtesy Eric Carle Museum

  • An image from Istvan Banyai’s “Zoom,” which offers steadily expanding viewpoints based on an original image.  Image courtesy Eric Carle Museum

  • In “The Grey Lady and The Strawberry Snatcher,” an elderly woman has to outwit a blue imp; one critic said this Caldecott Honor book’s illustrations are “unparalleled in effects.” Courtesy Eric Carle Museum

Staff Writer
Thursday, August 26, 2021

As David Wiesner notes, stories told just through pictures and images have been around for centuries: from the cave paintings of prehistoric times to the tapestries and stained glass windows of medieval Europe, right up to the advent of silent movies and wordless comic strips in the early 20th century.

But Wiesner, a children’s book artist based outside Philadelphia, says it took awhile for that wordless format to catch on in children’s books. The first such title was not published in the United States until 1932, and it would be another 30 years before another followed.

But in the ensuing decades, Wiesner says, picture books without text grew more popular and “became the art form where wordless storytelling flourished like no other.”

That’s an animating theme for “Speechless: The Art of Worldless Picture Books,” an exhibit at the Eric Carle Museum in Amherst that Wiesner has curated. Featuring the work of more than 22 children’s book artists dating back to the 1930s, with 90 illustrations, preparatory sketches and other materials, the exhibit offers both a bit of history of the wordless genre and an examination of the different ways artists use pictures to create a narrative.

It’s a subject Wiesner knows well: He’s won six Caldecott Awards and Honors, five of which were for his own wordless picture books. Some of the works featured in the exhibit were inspirations for Wiesner himself.

Ellen Keiter, the Carle’s chief curator, says it was after the museum hosted a retrospective exhibit of Wiesner’s work in 2017 that she and other staff members began thinking he’d be a good person to curate a show that would be dedicated to picture books without text.

“We’d been considering having that exhibit for a while, and after working with David, we thought he’d just be a natural [as a curator],” Keiter said during a recent tour of the new exhibit. “His own work is so impressive, and it’s a subject really close to his heart, one that he knows so well.”

Both Wiesner and Keiter note that wordless books give an artist a broader canvas, so to speak, to work with — no room has to be carved out of a page for blocks of text or word balloons, and an artist can also use different types of pictures to tell a story.

In an essay he’s written to accompany the exhibit, Wiesner says books without text also invite readers to interpret the story for themselves, keeping them engaged in the narrative in a unique way.

“A wordless picture book asks children to collaborate in the storytelling process — a very empowering request,” he writes.

In a recent phone interview from his home, Wiesner said that when he gives readings or talks about his work, it’s not uncommon for people to say, “Oh, I didn’t see that” when he points out a particular storytelling detail in a picture from one his books.

“At what age do we stop seeing things, stop seeing that kind of telling detail?” he said. “I love the way I can use those details to tell a story without text.”

He said he’d been in Ireland in early March 2020, giving a presentation at a meeting of the International Board on Books for Young People, and had just flown back to the U.S. when he turned on his cellphone and saw an email from Keiter, asking him if he’d be interested in curating a show on wordless picture books at the Carle.

“That was an easy call to make,” he said with a laugh. “Yes, yes, and yes!”

Coming of age

“Speechless” proceeds chronologically, beginning with a display of original artwork from “What Whiskers Did,” a 1932 book by author and artist Ruth Carroll, published by Macmillan. Drawn in charcoal pencil, it’s a story of a Scottish terrier that gets away from its owner and, somewhat like “Alice in Wonderland,” goes down a rabbit hole and has a series of adventures with a family of rabbits.

It was the first completely wordless children’s book published in the U.S., Wiesner says — and there wasn’t another until 1962, when Tomi Ungerer came out with “Snail, Where Are You?” in which children were invited to find snails, or snail-like shapes, hidden within the illustrations, such as the spiral waves of the ocean.

Though he researched much of the history of the industry, and had previously investigated it on its own, Wiesner said it’s unclear why there was such a long gap between “What Whiskers Did” and “Snail, Where Are You?” In the 1960s, he notes, several additional wordless titles were published in the U.S., along with the widely popular “Where the Wild Things Are” by Maurice Sendak, which used minimal text as well as a three-page spread with pictures alone.

In 1969, 14 wordless picture books were published, Wisener says. “That’s probably when the whole concept begins to tip over into the larger public consciousness and it becomes more common … It’s not that these books are flying off the shelves, but they become more viable.”

The Carle exhibit looks at two wordless books, for instance, that in 1981 became the first to win Caldecott Honors: Donald Crews’ “Truck” and Molly Bangs’ “The Grey Lady and the Strawberry Snatcher.” In the latter title, the Grey Lady, except for her face, hair and hands, is indeed the same gray color of the paper, and at times she almost “disappears into the book,” as exhibit notes put it: “Readers must look for her as carefully as the Strawberry Snatcher.”

Keiter says she’s especially drawn to the 1982 book “Rain” by Peter Speier, a story of two children playing in the rain that’s told with multiple small watercolor and pen and ink illustrations on some pages, followed by illustrations that take up an entire page or sometimes a two-page spread.

One of those spreads has the children posed in the top right corner, their image cropped at their shoulders; the rest of the illustration consists of watery circles formed by raindrops hitting the water.

More arresting images: In Raúl Colón’s “Draw!” from 2014, a young boy alone in a room imagines visiting Africa by drawing pictures of the animals and landscapes. In one sequence, he sets up an easel to sketch a rhinoceros, which then begins charging him.

Keiter notes that Colón makes the fantasy scenes from Africa more vivid by sketching them with a range of bright color pencils, whereas the scenes of the boy at home are painted with thin, flat watercolors. “It really makes the transition from home to fantasy more vivid,” she said. “It’s a great storytelling technique.”

To put all these titles in perspective, “Speechless” includes a time line showing the publication history of wordless picture books in the U.S. since 1932, and that part of the exhibit also includes copies of 100 wordless books, including some out-of-print titles. Another station has paper and drawing materials for children to create their own art.

Wiesner says it was a pleasure to curate the exhibit, given the opportunity he had to showcase the work of artists he admires, as well as how much of his own work is based on wordless storytelling. He’d like to see more wordless books make their way into the world — given the explosion of visual media today, he said, “We need visual literacy more than ever.”

“Speechless” will be on view at the Eric Carle Museum through Dec. 5. For more information on the exhibit and related material, including Wiesner’s essay on wordless picture books, visit carlemuseum.org.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.