Jun 16, 2012

Here's to THE BOYS, Young and Old

Last week's post celebrated the magic of my dad's voice bringing the Sunday "funnies" to life.

Now let's take a look at how those magical inner voices serve us in wordless books. I can think of no better title to consider for this than THE BOYS, by Jeff Newman.

The only way to do this book justice is to read it, and read it again and again. On one hand that's pretty easy to do- if you can read the days of the week. The only words are the "day" labels spanning a full week.
It begins on Tuesday when the new boy in the neighborhood unpacks his baseball gear and heads to the park. Overcome by shyness when he sees a game in progress, he opts to perch on a park bench with a foursome of "mature gents". Those are my words- choose your own: geezers, senior dudes, old fogeys, grandpa types. They are both stereotypical and utterly unique.

The next day the boy packs his gear away, grabs a loaf of bread for the pigeons, and returns to the bench with his new demographic. Thursday he begins to dress the part- You know what they say about imitation being the sincerest form of flattery. When he returns Friday, having added hat, cane, and glasses, the gents are not there. Eventually they attract his attention where they are "playing" on the equipment. On Saturday the boy arrives at the bench to find a bike, but no buds. As they scoot past on  wagons, and scooters and bikes he rants at them like the old coot-persona he has adopted.

On Sunday he stews on the bench while the gents gear up and head out for a baseball game, leaving equipment for the boy. Eventually, reluctantly, he joins them, scowl intact.
He then proceeds to blast the ball out of the park on his first swing.

Monday it rains, but we see his own baseball gear again unpacked and waiting with him for the weather to improve.

Tuesday- one week since his original baseball venture. He arrives at the bench with his gear to see kids  choosing sides for a game. This time he follows, calls out, and joins them. Then he whacks the ball out of the park while his foursome of fogey friends cheer on the sidelines.

The satisfying conclusion made me cheer. Both "the boy" and "the boys" had made it off the bench and back into the game. I especially enjoy the pun in that- in a wordless book, no less.

(Another synopsis and reviews can be found at Kirkus and Story Time Standouts.)
If you don't know the book, page through the first half at the Simon & Schuster site.

So where are the voices in all this? How do you "read" wordless books (or comics, for that matter) when the words are minimal or non-existent?

In the power of the pictures, of course. The Boys is similar to  comics illustration in that there is much white space, lines are minimal, colorful, and bold, but each is essential.  Tiny lines, dots, squiggles create both facial and postural expressions that speak volumes.

In fact, using the minimal lines forming expressions and gestures, I read five plot lines in this supposedly simple book, with the child being the main character and the gents each having a story to tell. Try "reading" the book five times through, in each case assuming the role of one of the characters. Voice their inner thoughts. Have the inner conversation you can imagine each having, including their views of the others in the scene and the reactions to how this changes their own lives.

Suddenly, the stories in the art provide a depth and breadth far surpassing that of a shy boy who is finding his place in a new neighborhood. Where the boy had anticipated rejection from his peers he instead encountered it from some of the gents- just look at those faces! And they, in turn, read the boy's situation perfectly, intervening with humor and determination. Newman has also mastered the "invisible" language between the page turns (or panels, in comics). The reader must realize that these gents engaged in negotiations and planning to so fully coordinate their efforts and intent.

And even at a distance, who can doubt that the foursome are happy to be in on the action now.

I'm no fan of stereotypes, and my own family disproves any claim that males eschew talk. But this story  reminds me that all grandpas began as dads, and all had to find their own ways to communicate, support, and guide their charges. It also reminds me of the many kids I've known who found that support in surrogate parents and grandparents. Whether that support is spoken in words or actions, or both, it can be life-changing. On this Fathers Day let's tip our baseball caps to all the pseudo-dads and gramps,  too,  with thanks for all they do.

An "emotions" resource tab related to this post has been added. It describes an activity to support the process of "decoding" and labeling facial expressions and body postures to enhance comprehension and depth of questioning.

Jeff Newman had an interview at the time of this release (2010) over at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast Blog.


  1. Thank you. I am going to find this book and read it. I love wordless picture books. Just finished having Chalk read to me by s few kids, each of whom had their own interpretation.

  2. Happy to introduce you to "The Boys"- you'll love 'em! The test of quality in a PB, to me, is how often it can be reread, re-viewed, and still be enjoyed, still reveal new insights. Wordless books in general have that capacity, but for some, like this one, it's especially true. Thanks for stopping by, and for mentioning Chalk, another wordless winner.


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