Use Your Words…or Not
Words fascinate me—their meanings, their sounds, the way they roll off my tongue—and they’ve sometimes gotten me in trouble. Here are actual memories (some of them cringe-worthy) of my discovering words:
While reading The Diary of Anne Frank in fourth grade, I came upon an unfamiliar word and asked my teacher (in front of the whole classroom) what “constipated” meant.
In sixth grade, I heard an unfamiliar word at recess. My teacher reacted strongly to it and wouldn’t tell us what it meant. So I asked my mom when I got home (in front of my older sister and her friends). She wouldn’t tell me either. (Sorry, Wanda, for embarrassing you in front of your friends.)
Before the Internet, I was searching through a dictionary for a word in the “S” section, and one of the guide words—an unfamiliar, come-hither word—caught my eye: “serendipity.” I gasped out loud—magic does happen!
While talking to a friend about unfamiliar words, I mentioned that there was a word that I saw all over the place, but couldn’t quite figure out what it meant. “What word is it?” she asked. “Ubiquitous,” I replied. I was serious. (Thank you, Lisa, for not laughing at me.)
When my older son, Alex, was in second grade, I read aloud the Narnia series to him. I had already read it on my own about four or five times. Prince Caspian contains the word “bivouac”—familiar enough to me, but Alex had never heard it. “What’s that? Biv-whack?” He laughed and laughed. “Biv-whack!” (Thank you, Mr. Lewis, for not using the more mundane “camping.”)
I am always in awe of authors and their skill in choosing just the right words. But I’m just as impressed when books tell stories with just a few words—or with no words at all. I want to share these excellent new and upcoming wordless and almost wordless books.
Reminiscent of Crockett Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon, Aaron Becker sends a lonely girl on a journey with her red crayon. She draws a door in her room that leads her into a forest and on an adventure. But where the simple line drawings of Harold’s world are charming, the girl’s complex world in Journey is intriguing. Her crayon helps her travel through a marvelous castle, where she finds and rescues a beautiful caged bird—but in the process, she drops her crayon and is captured and imprisoned herself. I won’t spoil the rest of Becker’s wordless story, which is truly delightful.
“AAHH!” says Frog as he climbs up on a rock in the middle of a pond. He is about to enjoy a relaxing day in the sun. Suddenly two hands holding a jar and a lid scoop him up, and he’s caught by a boy and his dog, who thinks, “AH HA!” The frog escapes, but there are other dangers in the pond—and more escapes. The entire text in Jeff Mack’s funny picture book AH HA! uses just two letters, bouncing between “AAHH!” and “AH HA!” and “HA HA!” until Frog is finally left alone to finish his nap in the pond. “AAHH!”
David LaRochelle uses just two words in Moo!—a tale that reminds me of my sons’ antics when they were little. Cow is quietly munching grass (“Moo.”) when she sees the farmer putting a For Sale sign on a little red car. (“Moo?”) It’s time for an adventure! (“Moo!”) Changes in font size and color and perfect punctuation make the word “Moo” say everything from “Vroom!” to “Oh-oh!” to “Oh noooooooooooo” as she speeds and crashes…then tries to explain just what happened. And like my sons, Cow knows just how to get out of trouble as she points an accusing hoof at Sheep. “Baaaaa!” Mike Wohnoutka’s illustrations are spot-on, adding humor and whimsy to an already entertaining tale. This would also make a great text for teaching punctuation and reading with expression.
Andy Pritchett’s little white dog is thrilled to find a stick. “STICK!” he exclaims on the title page. But he can’t play a game of Fetch the Stick all by himself. So “Stick?” he asks Cow—who isn’t interested. She wants “Grass!” Chicken wants a worm and Pig just wants mud. Dejected, Dog throws the stick away…but the stick comes flying back. Clunk! Someone else wants to play, and friends are made in the five-word picture book, STICK!
Those of us who live in the Midwest know all about summer storms and lightning and tornadoes, and so does author/illustrator Arthur Geisert. In Thunderstorm, he expertly shows black clouds building up and moving in, as people hurry to get the hay in the barn and the clothes off the line. Animals, too, scurry for cover as the winds grow strong and twisting. Inside the house, pans and pails are centered beneath leaks as the sky darkens. The tornado causes quite a bit of damage, but as the storm moves off, friends and neighbors arrive to help with the clean up. The only words in this book are the date and the time on each spread.
Mr. Wuffles is very fussy about his cat toys, which is obvious from all the brand-new toys lying ignored on the floor. But one toy looks interesting—a small gray spaceship—and Mr. Wuffles bites it and knocks it over and bats it across the floor. But this is not just a toy; it’s a real spaceship inhabited by bug-sized aliens—and now it’s broken. In David Wiesner’s Mr. Wuffles! tiny aliens try to elude the frisky feline and fix their spaceship. Except for the adult in the story, who talks to the cat at the beginning and the end of the book, there are no other words—unless you can read alien!
Daisy the dog, from Chris Raschka’s A Ball for Daisy, has another adventure. She’s back at the park, playing fetch. Her girl tosses the blue ball, and just as Daisy reaches it, she sees… SQUIRREL! Ball forgotten, she chases the squirrel farther and farther, until it dashes up a tree. Daisy turns around and sees nothing familiar. She’s lost! There are very few words in Daisy Gets Lost, all by the little girl as she searches, but enough to tell a sweet lost-and-found story.
And finally, a new fable by Jerry Pinkney rivals his Caldecott-winning The Lion & the Mouse. His latest retelling is the charming and almost wordless The Tortoise & the Hare. This has always been one of my favorite fables, especially after we acted it out in kindergarten. Beautiful illustrations relate the lesson learned by the proud hare that loses to the resolute tortoise: Slow and steady wins the race!
Ah Ha! by Jeff Mack. 9781452112657. 2013. Gr PS-1.
Daisy Gets Lost by Chris Raschka. 9780449817421. October 2013. Gr PS-2.
Journey by Aaron Becker. 9780763660536. 2013. Gr 1-4.
Moo! by David LaRochelle, illus. by Mike Wohnoutka. 9780802734105. 2013. Gr PS-2.
Mr. Wuffles! by David Wiesner. 9780618756612. 2013. Gr K-2.
Stick! by Andy Pritchett. 9780763666163. 2013. Gr PS-1.
Thunderstorm by Arthur Geisert. 9781592701339. 2013. Gr PS-3.
The Tortoise & the Hare by Jerry Pinkney. 9780316183567. 2013. Gr PS-2.
Corrected the pronouns in my review of Moo! to “she” on 9/5/2013. I am embarrassed to admit that I am Wisconsin born and raised, and I know that all cows are girls—and I will not forget it ever again! My apologies, David!