Wednesday is upon us again and I am ecstatic to have a fantastic vintage wordless book to share. It is a story from the 1930s about a little dog who runs loose in the woods, escapes danger, and adventures with a rabbit family. It is considered to be the first U.S. wordless picture book specifically for children (Dowhower, pp 59) and remained alone in that category for almost 30 years. It was reprinted in the 1960s, and also went through some illustration changes too, which I cannot quite figure out why.
The 1960s brought more wordless picture books from up-and-coming illustrators (including Mayer’s debut book from last week) and the category of wordless picture books grew and flourished into what we have now. Let’s take an exciting look at What Whiskers Did by Ruth Carroll*, 1932.
Because I am somewhat obsessive about picture books, I purposefully hunted down this early edition (1940, sixth printing) as I wanted to see what one of the very first wordless picture books looked like in the U.S.. I was curious to see how dated it felt, how the pacing and feel might have changed over the years, and what it looked like conceptually from the 1930s. And you know what? It is fantastic. I am impressed with the illustration layouts and the classic narrative. Beginning with the completely amazing end pages above, this book is strikingly brilliant in its wordless, one-color, magical way.
And I can honestly say this is the first illustrated dedication I have ever seen. (I would love to hear of more if anyone knows one.)
Whiskers is a Scottish Terrier in the first incarnation of this story. (I really don’t understand why they changed him for reprints in the 1960s. The new version is much more scruffy and plain. A Scottie dog is so classic and vibrant for the black and white illustrations!)
In the opening spread, we see Whiskers being walked by his owner. The action takes off immediately with Whiskers using some interesting (perhaps unnecessary) punctuation and moving to investigate some tracks.
This spread already had me hooked. I love when illustrations push and break the boundaries of their frame, and especially when they do it for a brilliant reason. The tracks are an interruption in the walk, just as they interrupt the frame.
Whiskers discovers a rabbit and breaks free to frolic with it; but his fun is swiftly halted by a ferocious wolf.
I have to again interject about the frame breaks here. On the left, the frame remains tight and intact, feeling almost oppressive and trapped like Whiskers suddenly feels. Then on the right we have not only the wolf cutting into the edge, but the rabbit is completely hopping through the frame to get away!
The rabbit and Whiskers are now running from the wolf. The rabbit disappears down its hole, and Whiskers quickly follows out of self-preservation.
Stuck in the tight darkness of the hole, Whiskers only has one option – to move further in and intrude on the rabbit family.
The rabbit is carefree now, knowing his path to home and being greeted by his loving bunny family. They gather together and begin their meal, only to be startled by Whiskers seeking shelter.
But they are a friendly family and Whiskers is brought into their den (and their frame) where they offer him food and the baby bunnies delight in his games.
Finally, after much fun together, Whiskers must depart and find his owner once more. He bids farewell to the rabbits, with tears from the little ones, and he is reunited once again with his owner who is crying for him as well.
And with the final spread, the frame is only broken on the bottom with the owner’s feet firmly planted as the base of the frame. Whiskers is home and settled.
The more I look at this story, the more I love it. Here are some of my thoughts on why it is so moving and how it works so beautifully to help create this powerful genre of picture book.
First, once again we have a plot that is very simple when written in words, but it is given great detail and a lot of whimsy through the illustrations. It is a strong concept, driven by movement and action.
Second, the pacing is well-executed with the constant movement in each spread and through each scene. There is drama and an arc of activity with increasing levels of satisfaction; yet the action isn’t fully completed until the final spread when Whiskers and his owner embrace each other front and center.
Third, the illustrations are bold. The charcoal drawings (I think) work well for shading and contrast, and they feel complete despite the lack of color. I love the fur on Whiskers and the rabbits too. Also, the animals features maintain a realistic feel and yet possess a lot of emotion and fantasy in interaction. That is an impressive combination in my opinion.
Lastly, the story has just enough whimsy to make the storyline more interesting. While a wolf chasing a dog chasing a rabbit is a pretty intense storyline, it isn’t super thrilling to carry the story alone. But there is something about going down a rabbit hole that opens all kinds of possibilities. While Whiskers isn’t Alice finding a Wonderland down there; he does find safety, hospitality, and a rollicking good time which is just fantastic enough of a creation to make the story come alive. Who doesn’t imagine what might really happen in animal homes? I, for one, always hope that there really is hearty feasts and games and much dancing. Don’t you?
I hope you enjoyed seeing some history in the wordless picture book format. Whiskers’ adventure is definitely a great introduction to the world of wordless stories.