The Power of No Words at All: Henry Cole’s “One Little Bag”

In April of 2020 a remarkable picture book was released into the world. Inspired by the author’s childhood experience, the story follows the life cycle of one small paper bag and the family it belongs to. One Little Bag: An Amazing Journey by Henry Cole is a trek through time, loves, birth, death, and environmental responsibility. The tale is heart-warming, instructive, and spans generations and relationships. Yet this beautifully told narrative contains not one word.

The title page of most books appears within the front matter at the beginning, preceding the story. Instead, Mr. Cole began the trajectory of this tale on the endpapers and fills the first ten pages with a visual prologue. Using pen and ink and a single color – a burnt ochre like that of a brown paper bag – Mr. Cole shows the selection of a particular forest tree. It is cut, transported and ground into sawdust. A paper mill converts the pulverized tree into paper which is trimmed and folded into Hart Felt paper bags.

A young boy and his dad stand at the checkout of a market where the clerk packs their groceries into two big paper bags and one small one. This finely detailed black and white double-page spread shows a man delivering cartons of Hart Felt bags near several shoppers. In the foreground is a puppy in a box labelled “free puppy,” making me wonder whether this is the same dog we see later. Fruit and vegetable prices and the market’s ambience indicate the scene is from some years ago. The only colored item is the smaller brown paper bag, whose origin we know.

The title page arrives. The boy and his dad head home where we see that Dad makes the boy’s lunch on the first day of school and draws a heart on the little bag. The boy, at first alone in the cafeteria, begins to make friends during lunch. There is more story.

Then a spread that brilliantly shows the passing of time in a series of vignettes illustrates that the boy and his puppy are maturing. The topmost image crosses the gutter and shows the boy chasing the bag. It is a wonderful metaphor for the advance of time. And the paired images below show the boy needing to stand on boxes, then being tall enough to simply lean over the hood, as he works on a car with his dad.   The small paper bag with the heart on it is always useful nearby.

At college the boy meets a girl who like him plays guitar and likes to bike. She draws a second red heart on the bag.

Over time, the bag carries sheet music, a cookie, then the flower petals a flower girl strews at the two lovers’ wedding. The bag holds popcorn as the newlyweds watch a movie, and a stuffed tiger toy for their soon-to-be-born child.

As their child grows he, too uses the bag. The boy’s father, now a grand dad, moves in with the new family. He shares many loving moments with his young grandson, taking him to the beach and the woods. The bag is used to hold the shells and leaves they find. The grandson draws new hearts onto the little paper bag.

As the grandfather ages, the story arc comes full circle in a most touching way. And the dilapidated small paper bag remains at the center of the denouement.

Implicit is the characters’ openness to people who are of different races. It is Dad who prepares the boy’s lunches and no Mom appears, so he may be a single father. By the end of the book three generations live together. And obvious respect for the natural world of forest and sea pervades the story.

There is so much in this 48-page book. And words are not missed at all.

Yet more appears at the end. In the Author’s Note we learn that the first Earth Day inspired Henry Cole (as a young child) not to throw away his lunch bag. He folded and reused it daily for three years – seven hundred lunches worth – taping and stapling to hold it together. Then he bequeathed the cherished bag to a classmate who continued its lifespan.

The book’s message of a loving family’s responsible stewardship is a genuine one.

And the publisher followed suit by choosing to have the book printed on “paper from responsible sources” approved by the Forest Stewardship Council.

One Little Bag: An Amazing Journey is a rewarding tribute to the cycle of life.

More by this author:

Here the author/illustrator, Henry Cole, reads another remarkable wordless picture book of his titled Unspoken: A Story from the Underground Railroad.

I purchased this book at Jabberwocky, an independent bookstore in Newburyport, MA. It was not supplied by the publisher.

Photographs by Egils Zarins

9 comments

  1. To no one in particular, I am realizing htat an additional power of a wordless book like this one is that it is not limited to a language. Anyone anywhere can “read” the story regardless of what language you speak. This makes the book more universal!

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    1. Hi Marti. Yes, the author/artist uses only three colors in this book, like back in the old days when limited color saved the publisher money. But his wonderful ink work is exactly the right touch for this story.

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