The Power of Words

The Book With No Pictures by B.J. Novak

No plot = No Spoilers

To ease myself back into writing this week, let’s start with a children’s book, with the Roy Walker-esque* of titles The Book With No Pictures.

You may have seen the semi-viral video of this being read by the author B.J. Novak, who also produces and appears in the second best version of the series ‘The Office’. Well we won’t hold that against him as he has written the best book for young children I have seen in a very long time, and as an ex-teacher I’ve seen a lot.

The idea is so simple: instead of relying on pictures to keep children interested, Novak does it with words only. There are many books with pictures only, or use very few words, that are still able to enchant and engage (Shaun Tan and Anthony Browne leap to mind, please do check them out as well). But this is the only book I’ve seen so far which makes a point of using only words (and make a point it does) and luckily it does it brilliantly.

According to the book itself “Everything the words say, the person reading the book has to say. No matter what”. It’s fairly easy at this point to see where the book is going. So off the unsuspecting adult goes and ends up saying “Blork” and “Bluurf” and “Boo Boo Butt”. Unsurprisingly, cue hysterical children everywhere. I don’t envy all the teachers trying to restore order after having read this story to the class. OK, we’ve all had a laugh now, quiet down and do your maths. Tony, stop calling Miss David a Boo Boo Butt now please, she’s about to cry.

But the book doesn’t just stop there with the cheap laughs, and thank goodness it doesn’t. After each strange outburst are fourth-wall protests (that, of course, have to be read) such as “Wait - what? That doesn’t even mean anything.” or “Is this whole book a trick? Can I stop reading, please?” I love these as a) it makes the whole thing funnier for the cunning child, b) it makes the idea a bit more clever and c) I can definitely see myself back in my old classroom days absolutely killing those lines.

But I think the most important thing I like about it is that it introduces the idea to children that words are powerful. Here we see words making people laugh, so it’s not such a huge leap to understanding that they can make you sad. Then, the not-so-huge leap to understanding that words can make you angry, make you scared. That words can be used to encourage, provoke, influence, attack, or inspire. In short, the idea that words matter. They are a powerful tool, so we need to use them well.

This book is an absolute goldmine for teachers and parents; I can see using this book as the starting-off point for a million lessons, activities and discussions. I can imagine children eager to write their own version, so you could challenge them to make a version that’s funny, sad, scary etc. What about a discussion with children on how they feel about pictures in books; do they like them, are they needed? Maybe even treat them to a trip to the library to see if they can find any more funny books to continue the love of reading. Hmmm, does anyone have any children I can borrow for a couple of hours?

So if you have a child the right age to appreciate this book (Novak himself recommends ages 4-8, but I can see the range being wider than that), please read them this book. It will be an experience for both of you. If you do, let me know their reactions in the comments!

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* Please tell me this reference isn’t too obscure.

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