The picture book I write about today, Natalie Russell’s Lost for Words, seems a particularly fitting choice, given that all the 2014 Caldecott Honor winners, announced last week by the American Library Association, were wordless books (though it’s probably best to describe David Wiesner’s Mr. Wuffles as nearly wordless). And that’s because this story itself works on many levels, but one level is that it’s essentially a tribute to wordless picture books.
And it’s a sweet (without being maudlin) story that I hope doesn’t get lost in the shuffle of picture books this year. I pay enough attention to the world of picture books to predict that it probably will, but I can at least put in my own two cents about this gentle, quiet story.
Tapir is…well, a tapir, of course. The good news at the beginning of the book is that he’s got some spiffy new pencils and a new, clean notebook. The problem, however, is that he has no idea what to write. His head feels just as empty as the blank page at which he stares.
Tapir takes note of how all of his friends seem to write so easily about things they really love. We meet Giraffe, who writes a poem about a tree (while simultaneously snacking on it). “Giraffe had a way with words,” thinks Tapir sadly. Hippo writes a story—whose protagonist just happens to be a brave Hippo; funny how that works out—that Tapir finds very exciting, and it occurs to him that clever Hippo sure does know how to begin and end a story. Flamingo composes a song, “so perfect it brought a tear to Tapir’s eye.”
Tapir figures he’s doing it all wrong, so he mimics his friends. Humming, wallowing, chewing on leaves: None of them work for him. No words come to him, and he feels very grumpy about it.
His own solution comes to him when he stomps off, gets some distance, and sees his friends down below from the top of a quiet spot on a hill. Quietly, he opens his notebook, grabs his pencils and begins to draw. He draws a sun for Flamingo, a muddy river for Hippo, and a tall tree for Giraffe. Just when he looks down to see there is something missing—and I, as a reader, expected that perhaps words would miraculously come to him—he adds his friends to the drawings. Aha, he’s got his characters now, too.
And no words are really needed, because he is still telling a story.
Children learn in all kinds of ways, and everyone has their strengths. This unassuming story is a reminder of that and is a story, at its heart, about self-expression and self-confidence—yet not a book that beats readers over the head with the message.
Russell illustrates the book with screen prints, which I always like to see in picture books. That is, I like to see it well-done, and Russell delivers. Her palette is filled with soft pastel colors, and her characters are composed with a lot of comforting, curving lines for younger readers. Evidently, this one is an import, first published in the U.K. last year, and Russell herself lives and works in Scotland.
A warmhearted, thoughtful story to share with young readers.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.