Celebrating the Silent Movies in Children’s Literature

SilentPictures that tell the story, captions that work with the images to bring the story to life, picture clues that show emotions, gestures that speak volumes, words that draw the audience in with suspense. . .Are we talking about picture books. . .or silent movies?  Both!  They have a lot in common, and that got our attention when we read–and shared– Mo Willems’ latest treasure:  That is Not a Good Idea.  We loved it so much, we went on a hunt for other picture books that honor silent movies.  Here’s our beginning list–please let us know about other treasures!

Not-a-good-ideaThat is Not a Good Idea by Mo Willems

Hilarious is the word that comes to mind whenever we see a new Mo Willems book.  You won’t be disappointed with this one! The villainous–and hungry–fox encounters the naive–and plump–duck and invites her to dinner in this picture book-in-silent-film format.  Oh, no!  “That is  not a good idea!” cry the audience of chicks.  A terrific ode to silent movies, too; one reviewer noted the comparison of picture books as “the audience of the lap” to the interactive nature of films.  Having shared this book with our own cadre of early readers, we agree.  There are TWO funny twists at the end that will have readers begging to reread immediately.


Silent-MovieSilent Movies by Avi

Rather than the comedy that fills Mo Willems’ book, Avi relies on the melodrama of old-time silent movies.  The setting is early 20th century, and tells the story of a Swedish family  of immigrants in the United States.  Papa comes ahead and sends for Mama and Gustav, but they can’t find each other.  Silent movies to the rescue:  Gustav becomes a child actor (doesn’t need to speak English for the pre-talkies!) and Papa sees the film and the family is reunited.  Of course, there is the required suspense and dramatic elements–and villain. . .The story is really told eloquently through the black and white pictures, with exaggerated facial expressions and gestures.  The story is enhanced by the brief text–beautifully set with white type on glossy black paper.


MackMack Made Movies by Don Brown

Ever hear of Mack Sennett?  He was a new name to me (Ruth here), but once I started reading about this genius of the silent movies genre, I was hooked.  Here are a few tidbits:  he filmed the first pie-in-the-face skit, invented the Keystone Cops, introduced Charlie Chaplin to the movies, and made Fatty Arbuckle a household name.   The energetic pictures are perfect to capture the slapstick escapades, like slipping on banana peels.  The writing is really engaging, too, with lots of witty comments, occasional word bubbles so Mack can add his own comments, and even a little dog in one corner of each page so there is a little flip book “movie” included.  This picture book is a wonderful introduction to the history of early film-making, as well as to the original “King of Comedy.”


Sir-CharlieSir Charlie:  Chaplin, The Funniest Man in the World by Sid Fleischman

Charlie Chaplin’s amazing life is a true rags-to-riches story.  Growing up in the slums of London, he took to the stage at a very early age (5 years old!) and became one of the most famous Hollywood movie stars of all time.  There’s some fascinating information in this children’s bio–for example, living with his drunken father and step-mother taught young Charlie to mimic a stumbling drunk to perfection.  This became a staple of his slapstick comedy and miming genius.  His career and personal life had many ups and downs–including deportation from the US–as well as being knighted in Great Britain!  The details of early movie-making are also chronicled in this captivating book.  The writing is vivid and accessible; for example, Sid Fleischman writes of the chase scene in The Kid: “If one can watch the sequence without tear ducts overflowing and heart in throat, one needs jumper cables.”  A great read-aloud!


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