The Nosy Crow reading group met last night to discuss two very different picture books – one with no pictures, and one with no words. The first, The Book with No Pictures, was of course the obvious, even possibly the only, choice for a picture book with no pictures. Journey, on the other hand, is one of a number of wordless picture books, and was chosen by Tom after an informal poll on Twitter suggested that this was the wordless picture book that was best-loved by the twittersphere.
I’m not sure this blog really warrants a spoiler warning, as something I think most of us agreed on was the general paucity of plot in both books. Nevertheless, if you have not read these books, and would like to without any preconceptions then READ NO FURTHER!
I think it is fair to say that when we first went round the circle to hear people’s thoughts, there was much more love felt for Journey than for The Book with No Pictures. Lots of people mentioned the beautiful illustrations, and wanting to pore over the details in each spread. The Book with No Pictures generated more of a Marmite (marmitic?) response, with some declaring they were disappointed and found it gimmicky, and others being very impressed by its effect on the children that they had read it to. In fact, I would say that the majority of people who really liked the book were those who had read it to children. There wasn’t (to my recollection) a single person who had received a nonplussed response after reading it to a child. Many of the children were described as thinking it was ‘the funniest thing they had ever heard in their entire lives’ and one member of the group even admitted to having had to read the book to her children every single night FOR TWO MONTHS, which provoked huge and unanimous sympathy. Few people appeared to have read Journey with children, which might be due to the fact that it doesn’t necessarily lend itself to telling or sharing, unless, as some suggested, one were to give it to a child to hear them create the story. This is one of the key differences between the two books that was felt by most of us in the group: The Book with no Pictures is meant for (indeed cannot work without) sharing, whereas Journey is meant for solitary consumption.
Original vs. Unoriginal
Lots of our discussion centred on the originality of each of the books. It was generally agreed that the concept of B.J. Novak’s book, no matter one’s feelings on the execution, was truly original. One person described it as one of those books that you see in a bookshop and kick yourself for not thinking up yourself. Another suggested that it was similar to the Stroop effect (the difficulty one encounters when reading the word ‘blue’ when it is printed in the colour red etc.) in the way it demonstrated the power and complexity of the written word, and even suggested that perhaps this makes the book work in a different way for children at different ages, as only literate children would be able to appreciate how words were exerting a power over the reader and compelling them to read something they didn’t want to, whereas younger children might be drawn to the book largely for its use of the phrase ‘boo boo butt’.
Journey, on the other hand, was seen to be much less original, and followed in the same vein as many before it. It was often compared with Shaun Tan books (which many felt was an unfair comparison, given the different target ages) and was described variously as like a computer game, a Studio Ghibli film, a Monet painting in the Clueless sense (“From far away, it’s OK, but up close, it’s a big old mess”), and a McDonalds Happy Meal, whereas I’m not sure I heard The Book with No Pictures compared to anything except a script. It was pretty unanimously agreed that it could only be done once, although many said that, this being the case, they would have liked it to have been done better, for instance one person suggested that Puffin had missed a really great opportunity with the design and typography of the book.
Who are these books for?
It was suggested that both of these books, in different ways, might be good for those who struggle with reading, or children who are reading English as a foreign language. The Book with No Pictures could certainly persuade a child that being read to, and even reading alone, could be a fun activity, and also might provide parents who don’t feel particularly comfortable reading to their children a script that tells them exactly how to perform the book to their child. One member of the group told the story of a young boy who had persuaded his grandmother, who would not normally get involved with this kind of thing, to read it with him, which surprisingly ended with both of them giggling away.
Journey could also be great tool for children who don’t feel comfortable with reading (in English or at all), as a way to encounter storytelling in book-format without the stress of following written narrative. The huge and detailed scenes and the lack of strong plot meant that a child could take the story wherever they wished. However, some people felt that there was a sense of menace in the book that would make it tough to introduce it to young or sensitive children, and other people said that the solitary nature of the book, and the fact that the main character doesn’t return home at the end, upset them while reading it, although they also accepted that these could be quite adult/parental concerns!
Tom and Kate had previously considered including a third book with both words and pictures in this discussion, in an effort to have the full range of combinations of words and pictures. They decided against it, fearing that we would reach the inevitable and somewhat boring conclusion that in fact, a book with both words and pictures IS preferable to one lacking in either. In fact, at the start of the reading group, it was suggested that this might end up being the conclusion anyway. However, I think that there were a gratifying number of different issues raised, and this conclusion was never one that we really reached. Indeed, I think most people, if not all, liked some elements of both books, and it was generally agreed that wordless picture books in particular were rather overlooked, especially in Anglophone children’s literature, with one person commenting on the plethora of wordless picture books in other languages that she had seen at Bologna this year.
The Nosy Crow reading group will be back in May, and if you’re interested in attending, send an email to tom at nosycrow dot com, and he will add you to our mailing list.