The picture tells it all

Proma Basu Roy

I have always believed that everyone can read. I say everyone because I have seen people from a range of diverse social backgrounds read, even though some may never have been to school or may not have known how to read letters, words or sentences. But they read. They read pictures, symbols and travel through a flight of meaning-making. When I was a child, I read books only by looking at the pictures. This was before I learned to read the text. Later, even when I could read texts, I would often be lazy and would still continue reading only the pictures; and how beautifully the story would unfold. Every page made sense without the support of the paragraphs.

And then I found books without words! Wordless picture books fascinate me. I think they are most effortlessly inclusive by themselves. I do not mean that books with words are not, but for wordless picture books, the readership itself is so universal that even those who are yet to read words can be included in the ambit of the reading joy. Also the journey of visual experience is boundless. It is irrespective of who you are and where you are from that you are able to read the book.

There are a number of Indian publications of wordless picture books, like, ‘Flitter-Flutter’ (NBT), ‘Busy Ants’ (NBT), ‘The Story of a Mango’ (NBT), ‘Find the Half Circle’ (NBT), ‘Homes’ (NBT), ‘Flutterfly’ (Tulika), ‘Ammachi’s Glasses’ (Tulika), ‘Round and Round Books’ (Tulika), ‘Loop’ (Eklavya), ‘Cheenta’ (Eklavya) and more. Among foreign publications, the range is wider. I first introduced wordless picture books to a mixed group of children in a school in Kolkata where I work for their library. The group had children with different reading levels. They were to read in pairs. I randomly paired them without any conscious thought to what kind of pairs would work best. As a result, there were pairs where one read proficiently and one could not, pairs where both could not, and pairs where both could. Each pair received a picture book which they were to first read, followed by a set of activities. When most of them completed reading, I saw one pair still struggling to finish the book. I realized it was difficult for them and replaced it with another book called ‘Flutterfly’. The child immediately leafed through the book to get a quick glance if she could manage this one, and to her dismay, with utmost surprise, shouted out, “What do we read? There is nothing in this book!” It was such an honest moment of concern for her. Her expression said that she sincerely felt that there was something wrong. I told her that the book had no words and the story was in the pictures.

It was easy going thereafter with much satisfaction in being able to complete reading this book. This was a reinforcement of the prevalent association of ‘reading’ with ‘texts’ only. Over so many years, illustrations have been considered as an add-on, supplementing the text, but seldom imagining that they are an independent narrative by their own merit, and a parallel story-weaving medium. Wordless picture books are still unknown to many. Compared to picture books they are much fewer in number. And thus, they come as a surprise altogether.

Wordless picture books act as a catalyst for immersing children into the book world. The nature of the books is so non-threatening that there is an immediate attachment with the reader. And what is best is that the children are then drawn to more books on the shelf. I have witnessed this process with a group of children who used to pick books from the shelf only to look at the pictures, and then gradually got into reading the texts too.

The author works with books, children and libraries in West Bengal and in other states. She is based in Kolkata and can be reached at

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