Many types of printed books either don’t have words or have a really low text-to-image ratio. Here, we’ll dive into the reason why these books exist, a little about their history, and some examples of each type of wordless (or image-heavy) book.

Books Without Words for Children, Teens, and AdultsPhoto by Rucksack Magazine on Unsplash

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Picture books serve a great many purposes today and most fall into one of 3 groups. But before we get into those classifications, I invite you to pause and think about how wonderful it is that you can read these words. Even now in 2018, not every adult has the tools to read fluently in their native language. Not even in the United States, which was ranked 7th globally for literacy in a study running from 2003 to 2014.

And as of this posting, the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) lists the global literacy rate (defined as people aged 15 or older who can read) at 86.2%. Don’t get me wrong, literacy rates have improved significantly over the past century. But we shouldn’t make the mistake of assuming it’s a “solved” problem.

Remember that 7th ranking for the U.S.? Canada is 11th, New Zealand is 15th, Australia is 16th, the UK is 17th, and Ireland is 24th. Even the English-speaking world has room for improvement in this area. There are people all around us who can’t read. And you know what?

Stories don’t belong to the literate.

Information doesn’t belong to the literate.

Wisdom doesn’t belong to the literate.

Before you bite my head off, I am 100% all for making reading accessible for everybody. However, in the meantime, while we still have illiterate people among us, it’s important to develop a more nuanced and complete picture of who they are.

Humans have probably told stories for the past 200,000 years. But we didn’t start experimenting with written notation until the Bronze Age. That’s roughly 3% of human history.

You don’t need to be literate to collect information. You don’t need literacy to develop certain kinds of wisdom. And you don’t need literacy to tell a good story.

It does, however, give you a huge boost.

And that’s why this first category of books is so important.
Books Without Words for Children, Teens, and Adults

Picture Books

Children are born illiterate. And until the day some kind of tech is invented to insta-download all of human knowledge into a fetus right before birth, children will always be born illiterate. But picture books allow them to identify shapes, colors, and positions with proto-stories. Plus, the positive experience of bonding time with parents helps encourage a love of reading later on.

Most people believe the first picture book was Orbis Sensualium Pictus by Jan Komenský. Published in 1658, this book’s focus is teaching children the alphabet through animal sounds.

Recommended picture books:

Emoji Novels

Yes, you read that right. Emoji novels came about in the late 2000s as the smiley faces and other pictographs became more ubiquitous. (Spelled that right on the first try, points me! 🙂 ) The handful of emoji authors decided to use the pictographs as an examination of how technology is evolving our language. The first novel, overseen by Fred Benenson, was actually completed by hundreds of workers on Amazon Mechanical Turk (a task crowdsourcing program). And rather than an original work, it’s a translation of Moby Dick called Emoji Dick. It was entered into the U.S. Library of Congress in 2013.

The first original emoji novel was written by artist Xu Bing, and the second one was published on Wattpad. Though not physically published, The Book Written Entirely Out of Emoji certainly fits in this category.

Recommended emoji novel:


Photography Books

I’m not referring to books about photography technique or history. Oh, no. These are the coffee table books, the books stuffed in your doctor’s office under a pile of outdated magazines. Whether they’re full of eye-catching photographs or reprints of classic artworks, there’s something almost therapeutic about paging through books like these. Not only can they be good conversation starters, but they’re also a nice break from semiotic processing after a long day of wordsing. (Yes, I typed wordsing. It’s a thing. Just ask Twitter.)

Recommended coffee table books:

PS: Tell us about your favorite coffee table books in the comments below!

2 thoughts on “Books Without Words for Children, Teens, and Adults”

  1. “Stories don’t belong to the literate.” – I LOVE this!

    I never gave much thought to wordless books until recently, when my four-year-old discovered one that we have. She has been SO proud to be able to read Good Dog, Carl to us over and over.

    And now that I think of it, my husband and I used coffee table books to plan a three-week tour we took of Ireland, Northern Ireland, and Scotland. We just paged through the books for great sites to see, marked them on a map, and figured out our route. Easy and fun.

    1. Wow, that’s a really fantastic use of coffee table books!

      And I love that your child is able to achieve that sense of empowerment and storytelling so young. That’s wonderful. 🙂

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