Inside the Picture, outside the Frame: Semiotics and the Reading of Wordless Picture Books

Article excerpt

Abstract. The publishing world has witnessed a proliferation of wordless children's books during the past 40 years. Books in this genre offer young readers invitations to transact with a whole system of images as they navigate these texts. Using a semiotic framework, this study focuses on three children's readings of wordless picture books and explores the ways in which they assign meaning to a variety of visual signs and cues. The data indicate that the children make sense of wordless picture books by using sense-making processes similar to those used in the reading of print-based texts. Specifically, they construct meaning through the use of prior knowledge and experiences, attention to intertextual cues, multiple perspective taking, reliance upon story language and rituals, and the implementation of active, playful behaviors as part of the reading process.

Over the past four decades, wordless picture books have become a distinct genre within the world of children's literature (Degler, 1979; Dowhower, 1997; Grasty, 1978; Lindauer, 1988; Stewig, 1988). Although only recently popularized, these wordless books have roots that extend deep into the past. For centuries, people have conveyed meaning through the use of visual images, without the aid of written texts (Brilliant, 1984; Considine, 1987; Heins 1987; Whalen, 1994). As Stewig (1988) notes, pre-literate people chronicled history, preserved their culture, and shared their stories through cave drawings. Masses of people learned about their religious heritage through the presentation of spiritual stories depicted on stained glass windows. Before "talkies" came to the foreground, movie-goers flocked to silent films, in which visual stories unfolded, without the benefit of the spoken word or, in many cases, subtitles or other print cues. In each of these cases, a series of pictorial images reveals a visual text tha t invites transaction; one that begs viewers to bring their individual and collective understandings to bear on the illustrated story before them. The wordless picture book follows in these same traditions, with the entire message of the text communicated solely through visual images. These texts serve as invitations to which readers can respond by bringing their own background knowledge, personal experiences, and social histories to bear on their readings of the visual signs presented in the illustrations. Wordless picture books provide a basis on which storytakers and storymakers can construct meaning and build their own narratives.

Review of the Literature

The growing popularity of wordless picture books can be seen clearly in the sheer volume of such titles published. Records indicate that nearly 1,000 wordless texts had been produced by the mid-1990s (Dowhower, 1997), with more than 99 percent of these titles bearing a copyright date of 1960 or later; more than 60 percent of them were published between 1980 and the mid-1990s (Dowhower, 1997).

The expanded impact of wordless picture books during this same time period is also evident in the growing body of professional literature that advocates the use of these texts in the classroom. Practitioners and other interested educators have advocated the use of wordless picture books as a means of promoting the concept of story structure (Reese, 1996), developing comprehension (Arthur, 1982), supporting children's attempts at storytelling (Avery, 1996), and teaching visual literacy (Cianciolo, 1984; Evans, 1992; Lindauer, 1988; Read & Smith, 1982; Stewig, 1988). Over the years, these books have been used to elicit talk (Larrick, 1976), support budding writers (D'Angelo, 1979), and nurture the skills and attitudes that surround the handling of books and development of concepts about print (Degler, 1979). Wordless books have made their way into all curricular areas and have been used with children from a wide variety of backgrounds, abilities, and experiences (D'Angelo, 1981; Flatley & Rutland, 1986; Gitelma n, 1990; Perry, 1997). …