The Middle Passage: White Ships | Black Cargoby Tom Feelings
Dial Books, 1995

Twenty years in the making, The Middle Passage wordlessly depicts the horrifying journey across the Atlantic that millions of African captives were forced to take during the slave trade.

I was first introduced to The Middle Passage during a young adult literature class I took during the course of my MLIS, and it hasn't left my mind since. Not an easy book to procure, I luckily found a copy on a used book website and purchased it for the high school library I manage, and I view it as a highly prized part of the collection.

The Middle Passage is not an easy book to experience. I say 'experience' because while wordless, it is immensely powerful and often difficult to view. In fact, the horror that Feelings portrays throughout dozens of black and white paintings cannot possibly be put into words. Scenes of violence, abuse, rape, murder, and death abound, yet while Feelings' artistry reveals enough to make clear what is happening in the paintings, the images are not graphic in the sense that some violence in films and books are graphic. What is shown is enough to clearly indicate what is happening and the blanks are easily, uncomfortably, filled in.

There is a lot to absorb in The Middle Passage. The white men who abduct the African captives are so pale as to be ghostly. Scenes of the ship's hold, with hundreds of shackled men, women, and children crammed into tiny spaces where many fall ill and perish, are unimaginable. The spirit of the slaves emerges strongly, with rage and mutinous intentions made clear.

It is difficult to adequately describe The Middle Passage. It is a book that proves that not only is a picture worth a thousand words, but worth more than words can say.

The chicken thief by Beatrice Rodriguez
Enchanted Lion Books, 2010

When a hen is snatched from the farmyard by a fox, a rooster, a bear and a rabbit follow in hot pursuit. The chase lasts for 3 days, through the forest and across the sea,  before the fox is finally tracked to his home in a tree trunk.

What an odd little book this is! Even its dimensions - the book stands about 5" high and is approximately 9" long - are different from the usual picture book. This wide perspective lends itself very well to the chase, with the fox and hen on the right side of the page and the pursuers on the left, and the scenery can be shown in detail. The animals are also evocative and drawn with a sense of humour, from the hen's sunglasses to the rooster swooning to any number of eyebrows found throughout. The scenes that involve sunrises and sunsets are especially spectacular, with the quality and colour of the light spot-on.

The chicken thief is told entirely without words, but there are nonetheless some complex feelings addressed. The rooster appears to be the ringleader among the pursuing trio, for although he sometimes leaves the more arduous tasks like burrowing into holes and rowing to his companions, he has the most evident emotional reaction at the end of the story. You see, the hen chooses to stay with the fox to (hopefully) live happily ever after. Yes, the hen and the fox appear to fall in love which seems to be a bit of a stretch, given the usual nature of foxes and hens. On the other hand, who could possibly resist a nice game of chess in a cozy burrow, natural predator or not?

A little bit odd, a little bit humourous, and whole lot of fun.

Chalk by Bill Thomson
Marshall Cavendish, 2010

On a rainy day, three children go to the park to play. When they find a bag full of sidewalk chalk and start drawing on the asphalt, they discover that whatever they draw becomes real. A sun dissipates the rain, a swarm of butterflies flies all around, and a Tyrannosaurus Rex fast becomes more terrifying than anticipated.

Wordless books are some of my favourite picture books, and Chalk is no exception. Without words, illustrations become paramount and Bill Thomson makes his acrylic and colored pencil drawings look almost like photographs: the reflections are bright and the different textures (skin, plastic, fabric) are realistic. The children's facial expressions when they discover the power of the chalk are wonderful, with one girl appearing almost crazily delighted and the boy looking very mischievous (guess who draws the carnivorous dinosaur?). I particularly loved the spread where monarch butterflies were magically taking flight from the asphalt.

Thomson uses perspective to his great advantage as well, by showing one of the frightened children fleeing up a playground ladder from below to accentuate her wide-eyed, wide-mouthed terror at being chased by a T. Rex. The perspectives he used created tension themselves, such as when the reader is in the covered slide with two of the children looking out at the dinosaur's menacing teeth, and the scene involving the demise of the T. Rex is masterfully done.

I hope Bill Thomson makes more like Chalk, as it's remarkable.