Wordless picture books can obviously be experienced alone, while reading them together can be a little more difficult. But in two new releases, the visual stories break from reality to serve as lush springboards for conversation, interpretation, and debate.
Window is a black-and-white wordless offering by French illustrator Marion Arbona (who divides her time between Paris and Montreal), inspired by her childhood musings of what might transpire behind various windows. It is a safe wager that no guess, no matter how out there, will correctly predict what lives on the other side of the glass in this fictional world – one that makes Alice’s Wonderland look like bland suburbia.
From the beginning, Arbona gives subtle visual hints of the gonzo glory to come. The first image of a young girl dreamily staring out a classroom window is a captivating portrait of mixed prints rendered in black felt pen; everything from people’s clothes to the floor to the wall is teeming with intricate lines, dots, squiggles, and geometric shapes. Next comes a double-page spread of a streetscape so steeped in different patterns that it’s easy to miss the subtle introduction of surreal elements like the disproportionately long legs of pedestrians.
Then the real fun begins. Each successive spread shows the schoolgirl on the left page, with a different window drawn on top of two large flaps on the right. Lift the flaps and what the girl imagines behind each window is revealed: a gymnastics competition for gnomes, a dark undersea habitat with glowing creatures, a clown-faced caterpillar holding a smoke-filled mug sitting atop of a one-eyed mushroom, and much more. Mixed patterns joyfully collide in every scene, creating an astonishing level of detail to digest. There is no overarching plot, but in each spread there are endless micro-narrative possibilities to discuss, laugh, puzzle, and even shiver over. (There are at least two references to children being eaten.) Window offers a borderline psychedelic, surprising experience – an all-out, madcap ball.
At the Pond, by Brazilian-born illustrator Geraldo Valério (My Book of Birds), is dominated by transparent washes of watery colour in mixed media. While a hard stylistic pivot from the striking monochrome of Window, Valério’s wordless picture book also utilizes a dreamy, reality-bending structure sure to spark conversation during a shared reading experience.
The story starts with a young boy and his dog setting off for a walk in the forest; at this point, the dog’s bright yellow leash is the only pop of colour in an all-grey world. When they arrive at a pond, there is a burst of ombré blue water filled with elegant white swans. Valério does some incredible waterfowl work here, particularly in capturing the undulating movement and flexibility of the birds’ long necks.
The boy and the dog hop on a swan (this is where things get otherworldly) and ride it through rainbow utopian nature scenes until the boy unleashes his dog and puts the restraint on the bird. This does not go well. In the space of a page turn, the all-grey world returns as the boy and swan look at one another and cry in an affecting full-page close-up. Removing and discarding the leash instantly sets things right, with the colour palette returning before all the swans fly happily away.
Valério has devised a visual narrative around the leash that can function as an accessible metaphor for the destructive role of humans in the natural world, but it also raises much bigger philosophical questions in a child-friendly way. What is the difference between a domestic pet and a wild animal? Why do both the boy and bird cry over the leash?
At the Pond gives young readers and adults the space to think, while Window functions as an ultramarathon for budding imaginations. Both offer plenty to talk about.