Summary: The first spread of this wordless picture book shows a young tree standing by the river of the title with the skeleton of a house being built nearby. A boy and a girl are playing near the tree. On the next page, the boy (presumably) is grown up with his son, and the house has turned into a farm, with a few other houses near it, and several kids playing around the tree. As time goes on the small community becomes a town, then a city. A wall is built, and a war is fought. The river is diverted and filled with boats; trains and then cars are also used for transportation. As time goes on, the tree grows, then turns brown and dies as the civilization dies out and falls to ruin. Finally, an acorn falls from the tree’s one remaining live branch, floating down the river until it takes root on a piece of land by the water. On the last page, two children stand underneath the new young tree. 32 pages; ages 4 and up.
Pros: This wordless masterpiece explores the rise and fall of human civilizations with an incredible amount of detail. I can’t wait to share it with kids to see all the details I’ve missed (this has happened to me with Aaron Becker’s wordless trilogy, Journey, Quest, and Return). Definitely a Caldecott contender.
Cons: It’s definitely heavier and grimmer than the Journey trilogy, but there is that spark of hope at the end.
Summary: Recess begins with different groups of kids doing different things: running, stomping in puddles, and hanging out with friends. One boy pulls out his artwork and displays it for his friends. Alex is bouncing a basketball around the playground, teasing other kids who are trying to get it away from him. When he throws it, it bounces on the bench where the art is set up, sending the papers into a nearby puddle. The artist is sad, and his friends take his side, ostracizing Alex. This continues until the next recess, when Alex tentatively smiles and waves at the boy, who walks over to him. The two of them talk, then shake hands, and everyone joins in a friendly game of basketball. The next day, Alex greets his new friend and gives him a drawing of the boy dunking the basketball while Alex cheers him on. Includes a page with tips for handling similar misunderstandings for kids who have hurt someone, kids who have been hurt, and adults who are helping them. 40 pages; ages 4-8.
Pros: The creators of I Walk With Vanessa (look for Vanessa and her friend in the illustrations) have produced another wordless masterpiece perfect for SEL education. Kids will enjoy figuring out what’s going on in the story, and the backmatter makes it a useful tool for parents and educators.
Summary: A young boy and his parents leave their home in the city to drive to his grandparents’ more rural house. As soon as they arrive, he and his dog head off into the woods to explore. They’re delighted to find a lake with a dock, and the boy dives in. Down, down he goes into the water, where he comes face to face with a fish. The last page shows him and his dog stretched out on the dock in the sun. 48 pages; ages 4-8.
Pros: A magical wordless picture book that emphasizes the importance of slowing down…both to enjoy nature in the story and to take in all the details in each illustration. The pictures are mostly black and white with touches of blue and gold. Most of the story feels realistic, but the underwater scenes have hints of fantasy to them.
Cons: I was thinking that this book should be considered for a Caldecott until I realized that the author-illustrator lives in South Korea.
Summary: The team behind Over the Shop is back with a wordless story about a summer day at the beach. A bus is shown driving down the highway on the title page. It pulls into a beach parking lot, and one by one members of a family emerge: a boy, his younger sister, the youngest brother, Mom and Dad. The kids get to work building sandcastles and continue to persevere through many obstacles all day long. The ocean washes one castle away, a lady’s hat blows onto another, a toddler plows through a third. Each time the kids survey the damage, then get back to work. As shadows fall, they put the final touches on their best one yet, then everyone heads back to the bus for the ride home. 48 pages; ages 4-8.
Pros: A perfect summer book that captures the small moments of a day at the beach. There are so many details and interesting people to see you’ll want to take your time poring over the illustrations.
Cons: It seemed a shame that none of the family members went for a swim in the ocean.
Summary: The action opens at the circus, where The Great Zapfino is climbing a high, high ladder to a platform from which he will jump onto a tiny trampoline below. One minute he’s there, and the next he’s gone. He hightails it away from the circus to an airport, arriving at a high-rise building where he becomes an elevator operator. Each day he meets all kinds of people on the elevator, and each night he goes back to his room and makes toast for supper until one day the toaster catches on fire. As the room fills with black smoke, Zapfino runs to the window. With no choice, he leaps to a trampoline rescuers are holding below, finally nailing the jump he ran away from in the circus. 32 pages; ages 4-8.
Pros: Mac Barnett and Caldecott honoree Marla Frazee have created a winner with this black-and-white nearly wordless book that feels a little bit like an old silent movie. The illustrations of the elevator throughout the day are particularly well-done, and kids will want to slow down to get a good look at all the people. I wouldn’t say no to some Caldecott consideration.
Cons: That’s a lot of smoke for one little piece of burned toast.
Summary: When the fair closes down in this wordless picture book, animals come out of the forest to take over. They start up the rides and games, enjoying the teacups, the carousel, and the cotton candy. As the sun starts to come up, a man gets ready for the day and heads to the fair as the animals head back into the forest to enjoy their treats and get ready for sleeping. On the final few pages, a wolf rips open the plastic bag with a goldfish inside that he won, and lets the fish free in a pond. 32 pages; ages 4-8.
Pros: The illustrator of one of my favorite wordless books, Professional Crocodile, has created a visual feast of many different details of a fair and all sorts of animals enjoying it together. Kids will enjoy poring over all the details and the fact that the animals are outwitting the humans.
Cons: I can’t really explain why, but I found this book slightly creepy. Maybe learning to drive bumper cars and eat cotton candy doesn’t really seem like a positive move for the animal kingdom.
Summary: In this wordless picture book, a girl and her grandparent run Lowell’s General Store. Over their shop is an apartment. When the grandparent puts an “Apartment for Rent” sign in the window, a number of prospective tenants take a look, but are put off by dirty walls, cracked tiles, broken cabinets, and old furniture. Finally, a friendly couple rents the place, immediately rolling up their sleeves to clean and fix it up. Not only that, but they help out with the store, becoming friends with the owner and the girl. The girl lures a stray cat up to the apartment to become a pet. By the end, there’s a new sign on the store: “Lowell & Friends General Store”, accompanied by a rainbow flag. 48 pages; ages 4-8.
Pros: The author of Sidewalk Flowers has created another beautiful wordless story that celebrates community and friendship in the midst of an impoverished neighborhood. The dedication, “For trans activists of all ages”, the rainbow flag, and several possibly transgender or nonbinary characters make this an outstanding addition to LGBTQ+ collections as well.
Cons: A review I read mentioned a rainbow belt and hat in the illustrations as well, but I have yet to discover them. This isn’t a con, but the illustrations are so richly detailed that readers will want to go back over and over again to discover all the details.
Summary: A grumpy blackbird sits in a lifeguard-type stand monitoring a nearby tree in this nearly wordless book. He has all kinds of rules he tries to enforce: no running, no yelling, and a maximum capacity of 100 birds. When he takes a lunch break, an egg cracks open, and two birds hatch, sending the bird count to 102. “Two many birds!” he cries, grabbing a net. But the birds organize into the shape of one large bird and drive him off. Sitting by himself, the blackbird sees an acorn sprouting and decides to help it grow, assisted by the large flock of birds. Eventually, they have grown dozens of new trees, providing enough space for everyone. 48 pages; ages 4-8.
Pros: The cute and colorful illustrations show the power of many against a bully, and also show what can happen when the bully reforms.
Cons: I had some trouble understanding parts of this story. Also, the final spread showing all the new trees was on the inside back cover, so the back flap of the dust jacket covered it up.
Summary: Thao Lam and her family escaped from Vietnam in 1980 when she was two years old. This wordless book shows her family’s journey, starting with a dinner in their Vietnam home where they’re planning their escape. The author’s note explains how, as a child, her mother used to rescue ants from the sugar water left in the house to trap them. When her mother was lost in the tall grass during her escape, a trail of ants led the family to the river and their escape boat. The illustrations show a parallel journey of ants escaping in a paper boat as the family is traveling in a larger ship. One of those ants crawls into a meal that turns out to be Thao Lam’s family dinner in their new apartment in Canada. Includes an author’s note giving more information about her family’s experience and her mother’s story about the ants. 40 pages; grades 2-7.
Pros: The cut paper illustrations do an amazing job of telling this refugee family’s story, cleverly bookending the tale with two family dinners, and weaving the story of the ants in seamlessly.
Cons: Reviews I read recommended this book for kids as young as 5, but I think the nature of the story and the way it’s told make it more of an upper elementary and middle school book. I wish the author’s note had been at the beginning to help me understand the story before I began.
Summary: A boy and his father wake at dawn to go for a hike. From the drawings scattered about the boy’s bedroom and the way he seems to know just what to do to get ready, it seems like they’ve done this before. They drive out of the city and into the wilderness, where they enjoy a day of hiking, climbing, and exploring. They take pictures and look at things with a magnifying glass. They hunt for animal tracks, find a waterfall, and scale a rocky summit, where they watch bald eagles soar overhead. At the end of the day, they’re home again, celebrating with milk and cookies and looking at photo albums, having made another memory to share. 40 pages; ages 4-8.
Pros: Kids will want to get out in nature when they see all there is to explore in a single day. This book celebrates both hiking and a warm father-son relationship, and would make a perfect pairing with Jennifer Mann’s The Camping Trip. I’ll definitely be putting this in my “Caldecott contender” collection at the end of the year.
Cons: I would call this a wordless book, but if I do, kids are sure to tell me, “There’s a word!” as soon as I turn a page. Do not ask me how I know this. So, fine, I would say there are between 8 and 12 words in this book, depending on how you count them.