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Wonderfully Wordless: The 500 Most Recommended Graphic Novels and Picture Books

Wonderfully Wordless: The 500 Most Recommended Graphic Novels and Picture Books. William Patrick Martin. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015. 264 pages. £28.93 (hardback).

In wordless (or silent) picturebooks, the image is the only means of telling the story, as they do not comprise any words at all, or they include very few words. The first wordless picturebooks were created for pedagogical purposes. Since the 1960s, after the years of dormancy, new wordless titles started to appear, created by such award-winning artists as Mitsumasa Anno, John S. Goodall, Alexandra Day, David Wiesner and Barbara Lehman. Since the last decade of the 20th century, wordless picturebooks have gradually established themselves as a distinct genre or sub-genre and they seem to have become a contemporary publishing trend in many countries. Despite this, wordless picturebooks are still incomprehensible and underappreciated, even by teachers and educators, and in some countries the genre remains almost unknown. William Patrick’s book shows the multitude of titles representing the genre. This richness surprised even David Wiesner, whose recommendation, next to many others (including recognised authors, illustrators and researchers), is placed at the beginning of the book and the back cover. They all point out that these books encourage creativity, imagination and visual literacy. Wordless picturebooks can cross cultural, age and linguistic borders, teach readers to interpret images, and allow teachers to work with different types of students, particularly preschool, English as a Second Language (ESL), special needs and creative writers.

William Patrick Martin is the author of six books and the owner of an online bookstore. He has been a professor of education at Temple University and Monmouth University. He has a doctoral degree in education and a master’s degree in journalism. Martin did his PhD research on the epic Great Books debate of the 1930s and 1940s.

Wonderfully Wordless is the third book in Martin’s trilogy that includes A Lifetime of Fiction: The 500 Most Recommended Reads for Ages 2 to 102 (2014) and The Mother of All Booklists: The 500 Most Recommended Nonfiction Reads for Ages 3 to 103 (2014). All three titles are published by Rowman & Littlefield, which serves mostly libraries and academic readers. These guides are different to other best book publications. They are uniquely authoritative because each is a composite of booklists from hundreds of the most prominent authorities from the worlds of journalism, publishing, education, book award organizations and library collections.

The guides are based not on the opinion of one book critic, but on the aggregate opinion of an array of critics. Each book consists mainly of reviews, supplemented by chapters on special interests or selected authors, appended booklists and an extensive bibliography. The books would make excellent additions to community, school, academic and family libraries.

Wonderfully Wordless is the first comprehensive best book guide to classical and contemporary wordless (and almost wordless) picturebooks and graphic novels from Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, France, Germany, Great Britain, Holland, Hungary, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Russia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland. The titles included here are generated from a database of 7,200 titles that represent 135 different sources (reference books, award lists, book, reviews, blogs, professional journals, etc.) as well as the author’s conversations with librarians from many U.S. and foreign libraries. The ranked list shows the most popular titles, the ones most experts agree are the best.

The guide is divided into thirty-three chapters and begins with a chapter that highlights several classical books. The thirty-one chapters are organised by theme or format and readers should have no problems finding an interesting topic. "Concepts Galore" and "For and About Babies" present the books for the youngest readers, while "Graphic Novels for Teens" or "Woodcut Novels" describe titles for more advanced users. Other topics proposed by Martin are "Best at Bedtime," "Numbers and Letters," "Christmas Cheer," "Aquatic Adventures," "Dreamy Departures," "Weird Encounters" or "Marvelous Mysteries." Each book presented in the guide is accompanied by a concise description, an astute commentary and the reproduction of the first page of the cover. It also indicates the age of the reader. The considerable downsides are the extremely truncated bibliographic descriptions of the presented books. There is no information on the place of publication or title of the original, which makes it difficult for the reader to know what country the books come from. In addition, for non-English titles, the author does not specify the place and year of publication of the original, but only of the foreign edition, which is very misleading. Some descriptions indicate the nationality of the creators (e.g., Aleksandra and Daniel Mizieliński [134]), but in the description of another book by the same authors such information is not provided (136). Hence, a researcher wishing to use Wonderfully Wordless to trace wordless picturebooks in terms of publishing geography would have a difficult task. Finally, Chapter thirty-two, titled "Special Interests," proposes over thirty additional classifications such as "Art," "Books," "Caldecott Awards and Honors," "Drama," "Food," "History," "Play," "Theft," "Zoo" or "Science."

In the last chapter readers can find short biographical notes of twenty-four artists who created the books and who are considered worthy of recognition by the author. These are, among others, Mitsumasa Anno, Alexandra Day, John S. Goodall, Tana Hoban, Fernando Krahn, Suzy Lee, Barbara Lehman and David Wiesner. The whole is complemented by an extremely rich list of the literature on the subject and two appendixes: The 500 Most Recommended Books by Overall Rank and The 500 Recommended Books by Chapter. Yet the guide lacks an author and title index, which makes it difficult to navigate. Richer, colourful illustrative material, instead of black and white miniatures of covers, would also be an important addition.

Wonderfully Wordless documents the variety of visual language by artists across the decades and around the globe. It presents a full spectrum of wordless fiction and nonfiction, concept books, board books, visual puzzles, cloth books, graphic novels, woodcut novels and others. Despite some drawbacks, the guide is undoubtedly a very useful, if not essential, source of information for scholars, teachers, librarians, parents and collectors interested in this field.

Elżbieta Jamróz-Stolarska
University of Wrocław, Poland