Though this will doubtlessly make me sound like a curmudgeon, I didn’t have “wordless books” as a child. No, I had plain, old picture books, and you know what? I feel like I missed out. Titles such as Brinton Turkle’s Deep in the Forest and Lynd Ward’s The Silver Pony tell sophisticated tales in a way that children who don’t yet know how to read can grasp on their own. Page after page of cunningly drawn pictures communicate stories without the need for a single written word. Consider Sector 7, David Wiesner’s Caldecott Honor-winning title that blends fantasy and science fiction in praise of youthful imagination.
The protagonist of Sector 7 (who we’ll call the The Boy for convenience’s sake) loves to draw pictures of marine life. Parrotfish or jellyfish, octopi or trout, it doesn’t matter just so long as he can jot their images down. In fact, he scratched out pictures of fish in the frost on the school bus’ windows as it drove him and his classmates to the Empire State Building for a fieldtrip. It thrilled The Boy to think he could survey the city from the top of the tower, but he discovered something disappointing when the elevator stopped: Everything was covered in clouds. He bumbled through the blinding whiteness, stopping only when he realized three things. First, his hat had vanished. Second, his scarf was gone too. Third, a small cloud had descended right behind him—a Cloud who was wearing both items and a big smile.
In the first paragraph, I mentioned that Sector 7 serves as something of a paean to imagination, and in reading through the book again, I found that its praise scampers down two different paths. The first is straight-up thematic. The Cloud ends up taking The Boy on an unsupervised trip of his own, a journey to the Sector 7 Cloud Dispatch Depot. (It looks a little bit like a combination of Grand Central Station and a Victorian factory.) There he meets a group of disaffected clouds who are tired of the old, puffy formation blueprints handed down by their overseers. However, they’re very interested in the boy’s sketches of fish. You can see what will happen, can’t you? The book’s conflict centers around expansive creativity crashing into hidebound tradition. I won’t spoil the ending, but suffice it to say that almost everyone ends up happy.
The second involves the illustrations themselves. Wiesner’s drawings fairly brim with the very imagination he wants to instill in young readers. The Cloud cheerily wreathing The Boy with a vaporous hat and scarf. The pair speeding through an ochre and violet sky with a cumulonimbus-spewing factory drifting off on the horizon. The Cloud’s friends twisting themselves into ever more exotic geometrical shapes as part of their creative experimentation. All of these sights delight more than the eye, reminding little ones that their minds can transport them to the highest heights.
(Picture: Copyright 1999 by David Wiesner; used under Fair Use)