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


The Story in the Pictures: a word on presenting manuscripts.

Words and pictures together make the story in a picture book.

As a writer who doesn’t illustrate, submitting picture book manuscripts to agents and publishers is daunting. Not only do we PB writers need our story to shine, but we bite our nails to the quick over its physical presentation. Is it double spaced?  Are the page numbers required? What about a pitch at the top?  Or should that be a synopsis?  Of course agents and publishers all vary.  So here is a topic that – along with rhyme and word count – is a workshop fave. I’m talking illustration notes.

I write picture books because I love the magic of word and image interplay, and I come up with story ideas that intend to work that magic.  I pare down words and let the pictures do the talking (that word count? Lowers monthly!). When I start working on a story idea, I think conceptually, and there’s often an element of counter-narrative in my stories – elements that let the child put word and image together and do their own thinking. Rosie’s Walk is the classic example – although it’d be a very daring writer who’d present a text skinny without any pictures.

The problem?  We non-drawing authors aren’t supposed to be directional in writing illustration notes. Sometimes we’re not supposed to write them at all. I’ve heard of one agent who won’t read scripts that contain them, and I recently had a review from a publisher who didn’t read my illo notes at all.  

How about we use the term ‘picture story’ instead? A ‘picture story’ note wouldn’t involve hair colour or other stylistic details, just simple story facts that help tell the word and image story that we have intended.  Right now, the illo notes issue is just one more mythical barrier barring outsiders from of the realm of publication. Perhaps some linguistic clarity might help us through.

What are your favourite examples of books where the pictures help tell the story? If you are a writer, illustrator, agent or publisher, what are your views on writers thinking pictorially?

Are you sitting comfortably? What on? It’s time to take a closer look at Oi Frog.

As a not-yet-published picture book writer, I’ve heard many times that rhyming texts are hard to sell to non-English speaking countries. But in the UK they sell very well indeed.  After all, don’t we all just love a good rhyme? Easy to read aloud for grown-ups, fun to predict for kids, and as for language development…

In Oi Frog, the rhymes don’t chunter along a la Gruffalo, but instead form the whole premise of the story.  Listen in to the kids and Patricia and find out how nonsense + rhymes = a whirling good story time.


We Love Story/Craft Club!

When I started this Y1 / Y2 after-school club I suspected I’d meet even a little resistance or apathy (from the kids of course, not the staff at Glenfrome Primary).

But no, the kids TOTALLY LOVE to make stories! Some of them write, some of them draw, some do both, and ALL of them bomb the place with glitter.

The reason I loved story-making when I was a kid was the allure of those blank pages… so much potential! It’s great to create that same opportunity and see their eyes light up as they set down their own worlds in these little white books.