Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Wordless Stories of Barbara Lehman

When Ben was first reading, I remember working really hard to get him to engage with the meaning of words he was devouring.

I was never very successful in my endeavor. It was - and often still is - difficult to get his attention when his nose is buried in a book. Especially when he was younger, the words on the page seemed to have a truly hypnotic effect on him.

When I tried to interject simple questions like, "What is that boy doing?" or "What color is the train?" I may as well have been talking to the wall.

Then, by accident, we discovered the power of a book with no words.

We happened upon a book in a children's book store intriguingly called, The Red Book by Barbara Lehman. Like The Beatles' White Album, the book (once you get the dust jacket off) is literally a red book with no other illustrations or text on the cover.


The story inside is a beautifully, simply illustrated tale about a mysterious red book and the magic that happens to the children who find it. The drawings remind me a lot of Chris Ware, another illustrator whose work I love.

The details of the story are wide open to interpretation, and the fact that the story is told without a single written word only adds to the sense of mystery.

When I first showed it to Ben I told him, "This book has NO words. So that means we have to make up the story in our heads." This became my standard talking point and Ben was soon repeating this on his own each time we read the book.

For awhile, Ben wanted me to tell the story the same way each time we looked at the book. Predictably, he was not comfortable with taking liberties with the text - even text that wasn't there.

Soon, he tolerated variations in the story. He even would ask me to read the book back to front, so that it created a completely different storyline.

Most importantly, the lack of words meant that his mind was free, finally, to focus on meaning.

Eventually, he could tell the story himself and would act it out with me using his own words. What better sign that he had moved from recitation to comprehension?

Since then, we have eagerly consumed all of Barbara Lehman's books and always have an eye out for other children's books without words. David Weisner also has several whimsical wordless books; check out Flotsam and Tuesday.

Lehman's Museum Trip is probably my favorite. Besides being a great wordless story, it's responsible for helping Ben discover he has something of a talent for figuring out mazes.

Wordless books are a wonderful way to encourage any child's imagination, but especially if you have or know a young child with Hyperlexia (who probably struggles with comprehension) I suggest you put a few wordless books on your holiday gift list.


Penguin Lady said...

Done and done. Just bought four. Thank you so much for the recommendations. I hope to get Will's SLP at school to also work with him in this way. I so appreciate this information.

Chris Ereneta said...

One thing Christa neglected to mention.

There was a period, after he had gotten used to hearing Christa tell the story of The Red Book forwards and backwards, when Ben asked her not to read the story at all.

For several nights in a row, he sat in his bed and looked intently at the book, analyzing the pictures, trying to decode their meaning. He insisted we not help him or interrupt him with questions about what he was looking at.

I have caught him doing this with each of the Lehman books since. He does it as well with the handful of Disney Comics comic books he owns. Because that's what Lehman's books are: comics. (cf. if you haven't already: Scott McCloud's opus Understanding Comics)

People with typical brains take for granted how "easy" it is to read comics, but for Ben it is anything but. Even a four-panel Peanuts cartoon uses visual storytelling techniques that can stump him for a while.

Imagine that in Panel 3 Charlie Brown is running towards the football that Lucy is holding for him, in Panel 4 he is lying on the ground, with Lucy standing over him saying something to him. What happened in between Panels 3 and 4?

He is trying to figure this out. And he wants to do it himself.

KAL said...

That's brilliant. I'm ordering a couple for Sam. Thanks.

Diane said...

Have you seen Zoom by Istvan Banyai? There are two of them: Zoom and Re-Zoom. The first one is cooler than the second, I think.

No words, just mind-blowing illustrations. Might be more than Ben could handle, or he might love it.

Amanda said...

More books! I have a tiny little box set of four miniature wordless books from my own childhood, by Mercer Mayer: A Boy, A Dog and A Frog; Frog, Where Are You?; A Boy, A Dog, A Frog and A Friend; and Frog On His Own. The collection was called "Four Frogs In A Box". It was put out by The Dial Press, but the books were written between 1967 and 1973 and probably published separately first.