A DAY FOR SANDCASTLES– Let’s talk wordless picture books

A Day for Sandcastles is a wordless picture book by JonArno Lawson and illustrated by Qin Leng. And I absolutely love every single grain of sand about it. I read several comments about the book wondering how, or why, it lists an author when there are no words. And I thought it would be interesting to talk about what makes a wordless picture book successful and use A Day for Sandcastles as that example—because I have read many wordless books that I think, bluntly put— did not work.

JonArno said in an interview that I read by Samantha Balaban on NPR (you can read it here) that he got the idea for the book while watching his own children build sand castles on the beach. The kids kept building their castles too close to the waterline. He tried to convince them to move their building zone further up toward the grass line, but they stayed put. Then the author noticed that part of their enjoyment seemed to be the destruction and the need to redo, reinvent, and rebuild their creations. Each time adding new structures based on what survived and what might have washed in with the waves. He also stated in the article that he supplied artist Qin Leng (I am a mega fan) with a page long synopsis. Sort of like a script for the book. And this makes perfect sense to me.

Even though this author and illustrator know that they are going to create a wordless picture book, there is still needs to be a structure to the book. A beginning, a middle, an end. Main characters. Things that happen. Pacing. All those things that could be told in words are still there— they are just hidden. This is why this book is so extraordinarily successful. It has this narrative structure, a sturdy skeleton, holding it together.

Enter the illustrator. It helps that the illustrator is Qin Leng who executes JonArno Lawson’s storyline with the eye of a filmmaker. She is brilliantly flawless at guiding us through this story. She changes the perspective to give an unmoving spot of landscape a life of it’s own. We zoom in and out, up and down, this way and that, with drone-like ease. She subtly changes the color palette so that we go from a sleepy morning hue, to a hot afternoon sunniness, and then quietly retire to dusky end-of-the-big-day grays as everyone goes back on the bus to ride home. I am obsessed with the way Qin Leng creates mini narratives within the story. These tiny details of the supporting characters maintain our interest and curiosity. It also makes the reader/viewer realize that this little area of beach is a community for a day. Made up of many different families, each playing out their very own stories.

I believe another reason that this book works so well is that it taps into our personal experiences. The nostalgia of our own individual and unique beach impressions allows us all to read and feel something different in the story. If there were words, would that limit that? Not “telling” us with text allows each of us to bring our own interpretations to the tale based on different memories and experiences.

I could smell the salty ocean brine and feel the warm sand between my toes. I love this book. Thank you JonArno Lawson and Qin Leng for creating such a harmonious picture book. Even if there are no words.

Jennifer Black Reinhardt

Jennifer is the illustrator and author of several acclaimed picture books. Most recently is Always by My Side, 'A Stuffie Story', which she wrote and illustrated. She also is both the author and illustrator of Playing Possum, and Blue Ethel. Jennifer illustrated Gondra’s Treasure, written by Newbery award winner Linda Sue Park. As well as, Sometimes You Fly, by Newbery medalist, Katherine Applegate. She illustrated Yaks Yak, Animal Word Pairs by Linda Sue Park, The Inventor's Secret, What Thomas Edison Told Henry Ford, by Suzanne Slade, Rabbi Benjamin's Buttons, by Alice B. McGinty, and The Adventures of a South Pole Pig, by Chris Kurtz.


  1. I had to read this post because I had the same question, how could there be an author? Thanks for the explanation and the beautiful images. Interesting idea!

  2. Oh, such beachy fun! I was intrigued to read more about a wordless book having an author separate from an illustrator. I have a very low word count manuscript and an illustrator friend was even wondering if it would work, since the illustrator would have to work so hard to illustrate it. Another friend said, it was my concept, and there are other picture books out there like this. Thanks for this great example!

    • Hi Angie, I believe that an illustrator would love the challenge and the opportunity 😊. I think that this book could have had words? There are many pb’s where there is no literal narrative and the illustrations are mostly interpretive. And then there are examples like this book, where the illustrations need to carry the entire narrative. I just read a wordless pb last night that I didn’t think worked well bc the story was too simple. It has to be complicated enough to hold the reader’s interest and curiosity, yet obvious and easy enough to make certain that the average reader will ‘get it’ and know what the author is trying to say. I think it’s tough to get right! Good luck with your manuscript!

  3. Michael Henriksen

    Thank you for this wonderful book recommendation, and for sharing your insights about the possibilities for an author (who is not the illustrator) of a wordless book. I’m excited to get this beautiful collaboration and gaze at all the creative story elements it contains.

  4. Wordless picture books are magical. This book looks wonderful -congrats!

  5. Thank you, Jennifer, for sharing this; how beautiful! I help lead weekly story times for preschoolers at a library, and I can see how this book would open up all sorts of discussion and engagement. This is a lovely book for both readers and pre-readers.

  6. This is so lovely. Reminds me of our own beach days! We typically go in the evenings and it’s so fun to see remnants of castles. And yes, there’s something delightful about having a castle near enough to the waves to fill up the moat. Thank you Jennifer for showcasing this beautiful PB.

  7. Hello Vijaya! It made me very nostalgic for my childhood beach days as well. II remembered the exuberance of whatever it was you were working on. Whether that was building sand forts, or riding the waves. It felt impossible to ever stop…

  8. Oh my gosh! Such a lovely book. It brought back memories of my sandcastle days.

  9. What luscious illustrations, so evocative of family time at the beach. Thank you for posting and describing the relationship between writer and illustrator for a wordless book. This looks like it works in every way!

  10. This looks amazing! I love a wordless picture book done well. Thank you for introducing me to this one, Jennifer.

  11. I could look at these illustrations all day. Awesome story. Beautiful illos. Thanks so much for sharing. I LOVE wordless pbs. ❤️🏖️🏰

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