Silent Books: wordless picture-books for refugees

An initiative to help refugee children on the Italian island of Lampedusa is now a touring exhibition in Ireland

How can a book speak when it has no words? Powerfully, through pictures alone. This is the emphatic answer provided by Silent Books, an exhibition of wordless picture-books curated by iBbY, the international network working to bring books and children together, which is currently on tour throughout Ireland.

The exhibition originated in 2012 as a response to the current refugee crisis, when a local library in Lampedusa, an island in southern Italy that had become a haven for refugees travelling across the Mediterranean Sea, saw firsthand how wordless books opened up an opportunity for refugees to share worlds and experiences with each other.The books also provided a concrete route into the new language for refugees. iBbY got involved by helping to select a variety of ‘silent books’ that could bridge cultural and linguistic boundaries through the universal power of imagery. Eventually, the selection grew to more than 100 books, drawn from writers from more than 20 countries. One full set of books was delivered to the library in Lampedusa, and a further set became part of a travelling exhibition, which arrived in Ireland earlier this month.

The exhibition is designed to draw attention to the key role that silent books can play in crossing cultural boundaries and promoting literacy. Although the books have no text, they are rich in a visual language that allows the reader to place themselves within the picturebook. From simple and linear tales like Waves to more complex stories like Shaun Tan’s The Arrival, they present stories that build on universal experiences, as well as metaphorical worlds that echo particular contemporary situations.

iBbY Ireland have organised a series of hands-on activities to enhance engagement with the books, from story-time to illustration and writing workshops with local librarians and picturebook makers including Children’s Laureate PJ Lynch, Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick, Debbie Thomas and Tatyana Feeney. You can browse the Silent Books collection at Ballyroan Library until April 18th; at Tallaght Library from April 19th-28th; at DLR Lexicon from May 2nd-29th; and Tralee LIbrary from June 2nd-18th.