Wordless Picture Books have long resided in the "Never Have I Ever" category of read-alouds for my Broadway Books First Class program. They are books for young readers that depart from a traditional written narrative. There may be words, but they tend to be labels or short utterances made by the characters. The primary feature of this genre is that the stories unfold through the illustrations. They require the reader to tell the story visually, noticing small details that propel the story forward.
Wordless Picture Books are fantastic for young children and children with language delays because they meet the reader at their level of understanding. They also encourage interaction with the text in a fluid manner. The eyes are free to land on details at will, allowing the story to take shape with each new observation. They are also wonderful for parents who struggle with literacy (or language) and feel self-conscious about reading to or with their children. Wordless Picture Books eliminate some of the trepidation these adults face in a parent/child dyad surrounding a shared literacy experience. As a teacher, I've encouraged many parents to share a book with their child by simply talking about the pictures. This builds positive experiences around reading for the child and keeps them coming back for more.
However, although there are powerful advantages to Wordless Picture Books, they also present some challenges when utilized in the classroom. In order to present these books to an audience of children, the reader must know the material really well. They must be comfortable leading a discussion because a traditional reading (reading the print) will get you nowhere fast. So, I customarily keep wordless picture books for my teaching, not for a guest reader.
Then, I fell in love with the wordless picture book Spencer's New Pet by Jessie Sima and really wanted to include it as a Broadway Books book selection. The illustrations feel as though you are watching an old-timey black-and-white movie reel about a boy and his pet balloon (the red balloon dog is the only splash of color in the book). It is a charming, quirky story with a surprise ending that I knew the children would love as much as I did.
The trick was matching the book with a reader who was up to the demanding task. I needed a guest artist who was willing to do a bit of homework by studying the illustrations closely and plotting out where to stop, what to discuss, and how to engage the children. I needed a guest artist who was comfortable leading a thoughtful discussion. Someone who could constantly read the room to check for understanding and engagement. A person who was used to steering the ship with confidence and enthusiasm. Someone who has pacing and humor and an eye for detail.
David Staller was that person! David is the founding artistic director of Gingold Theatrical Group, which presents and promotes the work of activist playwright George Bernard Shaw. He is a director and actor - someone quite used to playing nicely in the sandbox with others. He was a guest artist once before in 2019, so I knew he was great with children. His interactions with the students shine with joy and a go-with-the-flow attitude that suggests he is fully present. I knew Spencer's New Pet was a good fit for David, but what would he think?
I sent him a YouTube video showcasing the book and he immediately said yes. He invited me to swing by his Gingold Theatrical offices in midtown Manhattan because I wanted to discuss the challenges of the genre and give him a copy of the book. It was there that he pointed out something in the book that I did not notice. The boy is reading Pygmalion to his new pet! Given David's connection to Shaw (he is the only person to produce and direct all 65 of Shaw's plays, including Pygmalion) this was an astounding sign of kismet. It is also a very clever foreshadowing of upcoming events in the book.
Preparations complete (his with the book, mine teaching the students all about David's work) we happily welcomed David into the classroom. With each turn of the page, I marveled at how beautifully David led the reading. The way he provided just enough information to allow the children to understand the story, while simultaneously sharing their thoughts, their noticing and wonderings, and their enthusiasm was masterful. He crafted suspense by highlighting the many dangers lurking throughout the book, including the myriad, threatening ways Spencer's new pet balloon pup could pop. Until, finally...POP! and we were left to uncover what had just happened (no spoilers here).
To help the students understand the job of a director, he directed them in a "scene" from the book. It was a great way to get them up and moving.
This was followed by a book signing with each child taking home a hard copy of the book with a personal message from David. It is another wonderful addition to their personal libraries and provides encouragement for parents to sit and engage in language and story with their children.
In the end, the smiles and hugs let David know that his effort was well received and appreciated. He even took home a new pet of his own - a red balloon dog!
In fact, we all got a new pet!
Thank you, David Staller, for sharing your brilliance with us once again. We look forward to your next visit.
A Visit with David Staller
Broadway Books First Class