Pictures Without Words

Notes from a presentation by Mélanie McGilloway, hosted by Book Island and Bishopston Library.


Why ‘wordless’?  That’s how school librarian and picture book expert Mélanie McGilloway opens this stimulating and jam-packed presentation.  Picture books without words are, after all, still very much picture books. Mélanie tells us that less pejorative terms for this genre include ‘silent narratives’ or catchier still, ‘visually rendered narratives’.  She also expands on just how sceptical Brits are about committing to them (they do pretty well in the USA, apparently).   Why is this?  One suggestion is that book buyers simply want both words and pictures for their bucks.  Another – and one I admit I relate to – is that adults aren’t always sure how to host the wordless picture book experience… At the end of a busy day, is it perhaps easier to chug through The Gruffalo’s lulling rhythms than to explore the multi-fold stories of a book without words? 

Mélanie’s hugely informative talk was hosted by Bristol-based picture book publisher Book Island, and attended by Book Island fans, picture book lovers, authors, illustrators and primary school teachers.  As an aspiring picture book author, the allure of a ‘wordless picture book’ stirs up a mixed bag of feelings. Beauty! Delight! No writing! But there was a lot to inspire here.  Mélanie explained the different ways in which picture books work, and their power to engage young minds in a way in which written narrative can’t.  She also gave practical pointers on ways to approach a ‘silent narrative’ with children to make the most out of interpreting a beautiful succession of images that has no fixed plot.  Plenty of time and open questions are key.

Wordless picture books are used in primary schools along with post-it notes to inspire creative writing, and one teacher suggested that hiding the title helps keep young imaginations open to a wider array of story possibilities.  What I particularly value is what Mélanie calls the ‘risk-taking’ that’s involved in engaging with pictures without words. In a world heavy with SATS tests and screen media, time spent exploring ‘what if’ in such an open-ended way is valuable indeed.  A silent narrative is also a great way to practice foreign language skills.

But as a writer, how does this help inform my practice? Well, it turns out that more than a few silent narratives are conceived and designed by authors.  Footpath Flowers, is a well-known example.  For readers, illustrators and authors, picture books are all about images and the joy and creativity they inspire.  If you’ve listened to my podcasts you’ll know that this is one of my pet topics.  I’ll be posting more thoughts and gleanings up here at very soon.

You can find out more about Book Island and see their gorgeous selection of silent – and non-silent – narratives here, and you can visit Mélanie’s website here.

melanie mcgilloway


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s