Wordless wonders

These picture books may be wordless (or nearly so), but they speak volumes through their illustrations, weaving captivating stories of everything from shared adventure to belonging and community.

The Farmer and the Circus
by Marla Frazee; illus. by the author
Preschool, Primary    Beach Lane/Simon    32 pp.    g
4/21    978-1-5344-4621-2    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-1-5344-4622-9    $10.99

Frazee’s wordless trilogy that began with The Farmer and the Clown (rev. 11/14) comes to a satisfying end. The story opens at the circus, where the young clown refuses a red clown suit, preferring instead to wear the farmer’s broad hat and carry a rake. When the monkey appears, carrying the farmer’s picnic basket, the monkey and young clown “play farm” as they pretend to milk an elephant, dance in the sunrise, and picnic together. The only person missing from the scene is the beloved farmer. But not for long. Across the wide horizon he comes (holding the circus ticket left by the monkey in The Farmer and the Monkey, rev. 11/20). As the story unfolds to its warmhearted conclusion, an adult clown (the young clown’s mother, perhaps?) and the farmer are shown settling in at the farm, arms around each other, as they watch the monkey and the little clown pick apples for a picnic. Everything is resolved: loving adults to care for the child and the monkey and an end to loneliness for all. Frazee layers pencil and gouache to create her wide-open sky and an expansive prairie. She adeptly uses series of spot illustrations, surrounded by clean white space, and rich double-page spreads to pace the story. Readers will find little real tension but a great deal of warmth and skilled storytelling as the sun rises on a new, untraditional family. MAEVE VISSER KNOTH

Eek!: A Noisy Journey from A to Z
by Julie Larios and Julie Paschkis; illus. by Julie Paschkis
Preschool    Peachtree    32 pp.    g
9/20    978-1-68263-169-0    $16.99

This entertainingly madcap alphabet adventure is wordless, save for the onomatopoeia and animal sounds that accompany the letters of the alphabet on display. It all starts with a mouse, who sneezes (A is for “achoo”) after smelling a big, beautiful daisy. From that flower flies a bee (B is for “bzzz”), while a bird “chirps,” and — uh-oh — here comes a large bell, hanging off a cat (D is for “ding-a-ling”). So it goes, with the far-right recto of each spread often giving us a hint as to what’s coming with the page-turn. Paschkis provides delicate drawings of well-dressed animals (in clothes with intriguing, eye-catching patterns) who (mostly) move across the pages from right to left, as if we are watching a play unfold. The solidly colored backgrounds pop with eye-catching hues, and though things get hectic — there’s a bicycle wreck that results in an injured raccoon, a musical parade, and a pig careening through the V and W spread in a sleek blue convertible — Paschkis keeps the compositions from becoming cluttered. Viewers will delight in narrating the action, particularly given the boisterous sounds occurring all throughout the book, and in spotting and naming all the animals that appear. The ending reveals the recipient of that first spread’s daisy — a lion — and never fear: the mouse falls asleep safely and snugly, because Z is for “ZzZzZ.” JULIE DANIELSON

Over the Shop
by JonArno Lawson; illus. by Qin Leng
Primary    Candlewick    48 pp.    g
1/21    978-1-5362-0147-5    $16.99

As in Sidewalk Flowers (rev. 5/15), author Lawson conceptualized the story for this wordless picture book. Here, words appear only as text within the illustrations (a sign displays the name of the titular shop as Lowell’s General Store; a card in the shop window reads “Apartment for Rent”). Leng’s watercolor and ink illustrations channel Quentin Blake and David Small in their loose lines and expressive characterization. A gruff shopkeeper lives behind the shop, in a neglected, rundown building, with a child. The overall atmosphere is one of gloom and disconnection: a next-door neighbor often sits on a stoop reading, but everyone keeps to themselves; a stray cat comes begging, only to be shooed away by the shopkeeper. Deft use of panels helps establish the sequence of events as the child offers the cat food and later encourages the shopkeeper to rent the apartment to a young couple (one of whom can be read as nonbinary, as can several other characters in the book). Once they move in, everything begins to brighten and change for the better: the couple spruces up the place and begins helping out in the shop, which visibly softens the shopkeeper’s disposition. Even the cat leaves the alley to join the household. A finishing touch is a rainbow flag hung outside the front window, near the shop’s sign, which now reads Lowell & Friends General Store, marking it as a space of warmth, community, and yes, pride. MEGAN DOWD LAMBERT

The Midnight Fair
by Gideon Sterer; illus. by Mariachiara Di Giorgio
Primary    Candlewick    32 pp.    g
2/21    978-1-5362-1115-3    $16.99

Forest creatures emerge from the shadows to have their own nighttime fun at the county fairgrounds in this wordless and wondrous picture book. Once the humans head home for the evening, foxes, raccoons, bears, deer, and other woodland creatures break through a fence, switch on the electricity, and enjoy the fair in all its summer glory. The animals have the place cleaned up before the groundskeeper returns for another day of work, but it is a close call. A paneled layout builds suspense by showcasing simultaneous locations and events, such as the human worker arriving at dawn at the same moment the creatures are tossing trash into bins and scurrying away. Cinematic visuals include moments of humor as creatures are shown stuffing their faces with snacks, playing games, and covering their eyes on rides. The glowing watercolor, gouache, and colored-pencil illustrations are atmospheric and brilliantly rendered through lush washes of color and intriguing contrasts of dark and light, illuminating the setting and depicting an engaging tension between the wildness of the animals and the humanness of their behaviors and activities as fair-goers. In the morning, pieces of the currency the animals used (pebbles, leaves, etc.) are left on the ticket booth for the groundskeeper to discover; in the wild, a goldfish won at a carnival game is freed from its bag and set loose in a pond. This intriguing ending affords viewers the opportunity to reflect on the dreamlike narrative and ponder what happens next. ELISA GALL

Oscar’s Tower of Flowers
by Lauren Tobia; illus. by the author
Preschool    Candlewick    40 pp.    g
5/21    978-1-5362-1777-3    $17.99

In her first solo picture book, Tobia (illustrator of the beloved Anna Hibiscus books) crafts an affecting and wordless tale of separation, growth, neighborliness, and love. Viewers are introduced to young Oscar, with small suitcase in tow, as he’s dropped off by a loved one (perhaps his mother) at the home of a kindly woman (maybe another family member). Thoughtfully paced mixed-media panel illustrations emphasize Oscar’s initial sadness and the comfort he subsequently receives from the woman as he settles in. His interest in flowers leads the pair to a garden shop, where they buy seeds and potting materials that Oscar transports back to the apartment on his red tricycle. As Oscar tends the growing plants, some time passes, shown in the illustrations via the changing of weather, light, and the construction of a new building visible through an apartment window. The blooming flowers eventually overcrowd the apartment until sweet, thoughtful Oscar decides to share some with the neighbors, bringing joy and new friendships. And soon after, Oscar gets a happy ending with the return of his caretaker. Tobia’s visual narrative is full of lovely details: the stuffed monkey Oscar takes everywhere, an attentive gray cat, even the endpapers depicting the apartment tower before and after Oscar’s colorful improvements. Share this warmhearted story with any preschooler experiencing separation from a loved one. CYNTHIA K. RITTER

by Issa Watanabe; illus. by the author
Primary, Intermediate    Gecko    40 pp.    g
10/20    978-1-776573-13-4    $15.99

A group of despondent anthropomorphic animals, carrying little in the way of possessions, treks across land and sea in this wordless story from Peruvian author-illustrator Watanabe. Following the party is a skeletal creature, assumed to be Death, accompanied by a tall blue ibis and wearing a long black cloak adorned with flowers. The group stops briefly to eat and rest, eventually arriving at the ocean. In attempting to cross the water on rough waves, the animals lose their boat. When on land again, they say goodbye to a member of their party who doesn’t survive; this change in pace — the pause in weary walking to mourn the loss — is filled with tenderness, the bereaved creatures gathered dejectedly around their beloved friend. Afterward, Death stops to comfort the deceased creature while the party reluctantly moves on. The severe, distinctive palette includes a pitch-black background on each spread and (on most) a thin, green strip of grass, as if a stage the animals walk across. Their clothing provides vivid pops of color, along with rose-colored blooms on the trees they pass, which, at book’s close, represent a sign of hope. This powerful portrait — stark, eloquent, and utterly devoid of sentimentality — depicts the arduous, dangerous journeys of migrants all across the globe. It’s a small book that tells a big story of loss and courage. JULIE DANIELSON

From the September 2021 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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