Welcome to another round for Wordless Wednesday. Given the award announcements this week, it seems appropriate to highlight a previous winner in the Caldecott category. This book has been one of my favorites since it came out, and was one of the first books I added to my shelves when I started collecting favorite picture books. Something about the bold, red, wordless cover has always had me intrigued. And now that I live in the city that from my apartment window looks very much like the title spread below, I am attached to this book even more.
In this story, you’ll have to decide if the protagonist is the girl or the red book. And what about the red book’s main character? Yes, this book has many secrets, twists, mysteries and more to be discovered and pondered again and again. Let’s talk about The Red Book by Barbara Lehman, 2004, and Caldecott Honor winner in 2005. Also stay tuned for a lovely Q&A with the creator as well!
The book opens on a street of the city where a little girl is walking. She spies a red book sticking out of a mound of snow and happily claims it as her own. The book intrigues her and she can be seen opening it during class and getting wholly “drawn” into the book. (Yes, that is a very purposeful, three-fold meaning pun right there. Don’t ignore it.)
The book in the story has pictures in a similar style to the book the girl is in, which we are reading. If that seemed confusing, hold onto your hat.
The story in the girl’s red book leads her to a boy alone on an island. She reads about him finding a red book and reading it as well; only the book he is reading contains the story of the girl reading her red book.
It is an immediate friendship, of sorts, and the story gets wilder and wilder as the girl rushes out and buys a giant bundle of balloons. Up and away she goes, and the reader knows where she is headed. But the story of the red book is not over, though my version of it will end there, at least until I pick it up again. You’ll have to find a copy for yourself and be completely enchanted by the delightfully mind-boggling plot for yourself.
So, as usual, I am going to attempt to unpack why I think this book is such an awesome and well-done wordless book. But this is no small feat for me as I love this book a lot, but there are times where it makes my head hurt trying to figure it out. Ha!
First, most of the wordless books we have talked about have the simple storyline to direct it. That is not quite the case here. As the story progresses, it becomes more and more complicated. I actually think that one of the key components here is the simple illustration style. Don’t get me wrong, the illustrations are visually beautifully and Lehman deserved that Caldecott Honor for the lovely work here; but the style itself is bold, flat shapes, and an almost comic-like structure and character style. This works very, very well to grab interest and detail the storyline as it expands in complexity. I love the bizarre combination between the brain-twisting elements and the simple dot-eyed characters that manage to express a great deal. Perhaps it is because I have an unhealthy love of infographics, but the style almost reminds me of that—basic, yet beautiful, shapes illustrating a difficult, yet fascinating, concept.
Second, the plot is fantastic! What kid doesn’t love a good mystery? And especially one that makes you think about it, and come back to it, and try to figure out all its variables. This book feels like a choose-your-own adventure book turned on its head. Surprise main protagonist! You are in someone else’s book. It is a book that breaks the fourth wall, but that fourth wall is inside the book itself. Wow.
Third, the plot is incredibly heartwarming. So, while most kids, and adults too, enjoy brain-twisters and puzzles—we probably don’t feel that warm and fuzzy about them. Well, The Red Book has that warm, fuzzy aspect too. Ultimately, this is a book about friendship. Where the girl finds that friend and how she gets there is a completely crazy, unique tale; but in the end, friendship is at the heart. And that makes a lot of sense with the title and the strongest color of the cover and dust jacket of the book being red, which is a color signalling passion and love. Puzzles and games and great books are excellent for sure, but when they lead to a new friend—even better.
Lastly, the story doesn’t end. Well, technically yes, it actually does. But, without giving too much away, the red book (in the story) continues in existence and is bound to be picked up and continued on its friend-finding mission. The Red Book begins to feel like a live thing itself and it opens the imagination to all kinds of possibilities. Every time I close this story, I find myself staring at the red book in my hand and smiling a little more. A myriad of questions flood in as the story unfolds, and that only bodes incredibly well for reading a wordless picture book.
But enough of my confusing attempt at explaining my love for the book and how the book works itself. Let’s hear from the creator, Barbara Lehman, who is so amazing in her story-concocting and picture-making that she actually included a bio of herself drawing herself, drawing herself, drawing…. Amazing.
Question: What motivates you to create wordless picture books as opposed to traditional text + illustration books?
Barbara Lehman: In my case, I think the specific subject matter of my wordless books is perhaps better communicated in visuals then explained in text. Some concepts are more effectively grasped with pictures, other types of stories work better with text. Dialog is a perfect example—you can’t do that with a wordless book.
Q: Was there ever text or narration in your head for The Red Book or did it always perform silently?
BL: The Red Book originally had text, which I struggled with writing, and then found it worked better for me being told pictorially. In this case part of it was because of the nature of the unusual things that happen, which were easier to show than to describe.
Q: Is there a specific storyline and conclusion to The Red Book that you hope the reader gets or is it a bit open-ended in your opinion?
BL: As this was my first wordless book, I initially felt confused that not everyone “made” the exact same story from the visuals! And then I took a step back and realized that it was really a collaborative experience, as all books are—wordless books being just the “opposite” of how we usually experience stories in book form. As adults, we normally read just text and create our own images in our minds—the settings, the faces and so on—within the parameters of the written description. Wordless books are just the opposite: the specific storyline is what gets created in one’s mind, using the structure of the visuals, and so this is the part that will have the individual slant. I quickly came to really enjoy the variations among different children, and the additional possibility that the same child is also free to vary the story over time however it may strike them on different days or as they age.
Q: Is it a more challenging experience to create a wordless book than a text book or is every book different, period?
BL: As I have done both—I’d say it is harder to illustrate a wordless book because the entire narrative rests in the specific details and nothing else, so I must be more finicky and, I guess “strict” about my pictures!
Q: Is there a soundtrack that you hear for The Red Book?
BL: Good question about the soundtrack—never thought about it! I do usually end up associating the finished illustrations with specific audio books or This American Life binges, because doing the finishes is the one time during the book making process that I can work and listen to words at the same time.
Q: Do you consider wordless picture books a better solitary experience or more exciting as a read-aloud?
BL: They can go both ways. The bonus is that a child can have an independent and personal book experience if they wish, entirely on their own, without relying on the availability or willingness of a reader!
Q: Have you ever shared The Red Book in a storytime? Do you have tips for how it or any other wordless picture books could be read aloud?
BL: Let the kids tell the story! In a class I will hold up the book and turn the pages, and have some prompts to get things started, but once you tell kids to “read” the story as a group they usually take to it quite eagerly. This is also super interesting because you may also find that kids “read” pictures amazingly fast and accurately, and often far more naturally then adults do. So it is pretty fun to let them be the reader/authors and tell the story themselves to you one-on-one or collaboratively with each other during a class or group reading.
Q: Do you have any favorite wordless picture books?
BL: Well, I have a ton of wordless books, and it would be too hard to pick favorites! I will say that in childhood I loved the wordless books by Mercer Mayer, and I also loved his drawings in general. I know that his books were part of my inspiration in creating some wordless narratives when I was high school age, and so I have a particular fondness for them.
Oh, I loved reading Barbara’s thoughts! It is such a pleasure to get a bit of an inside scoop on a book that I have held dear for so long. Thanks to Barbara Lehman for taking the time to answer my questions and especially for making such amazingly beautiful and challenging books as this one. Happy reading and watch out for any red books you encounter in your day! You just never know what you are opening.