Review of the Day: Sidewalk Flowers by JonArno Lawson
When you live in a city, nature’s successes can feel like impositions. We have too many pigeons. Too many squirrels. Too many sparrows, and roaches, and ants. Too many . . . flowers? Flowers we don’t seem to mind as much but we certainly don’t pay any attention to them. Not if we’re adults, anyway. Kids, on the other hand, pay an exquisite amount of attention to anything on their eye level. Particularly if it’s a spot of tangible beauty available to them for the picking. Picture books have so many functions, but one of them is tapping into the mindset of people below the ages of 9 or 10. A good picture book gets down to a child’s eye level, seeing what they’re seeing, reveling in what they’re reveling in. Perspective and subject matter, art and heart, all combine with JonArno Lawson and Sydney Smith’s Sidewalk Flowers. Bright spots of joy and comfort, sometimes it takes a kid to see what anyone else might claim isn’t even there.
A girl and her father leave the grocery to walk the city streets home. As he leads, he is blind to the things she sees. A tattooed stranger. A woman in a cab. And on one corner, small dandelions poking out of the sidewalk. As the two walk she finds more and more of the beauties, and gathers them into a bouquet. Once that’s done she finds ways of giving them out. Four to the dead bird on the sidewalk. One to the homeless man asleep on the bench. Five tucked into the collar of a dog. Home once more she plants flowers in her mother’s hair and behind her brothers’ ears. Then, with the last blossom, she tucks it behind her own ear. That done, she’s ready to keep walking, watching and noticing.
Now JonArno Lawson, I know. If I had my way his name would grace the tongue of every children’s librarian in America. However, he is both Canadian and a poet and the dual combination dooms his recognition in the United States. Canadians, after all, cannot win most of the American Library Association awards and poets are becoming increasingly rare beasts in the realm of children’s literature. Time was you couldn’t throw a dart without hitting one or two children’s poets (albeit the slow moving ones). Now it sometimes feels like there are only 10-15 in any given year. Treat your children and read them The Man in the Moon Fixer’s Mask if ever you get a chance. Seen in this light, the idea of a poet turned wordless picture book author is unusual. It’s amazing that a man of words, one that finds such satisfaction in how they are strung together, could step back and realize from the get-go that this story could be best served only when the words themselves were removed.
A picture book as an object is capable of bringing to the attention of the reader those small moments of common grace that make the world ever so slightly better. In an interview with Horn Book editor Roger Sutton, author JonArno Lawson cited the inspiration for this book: “Basically, I was walking with my daughter down an ugly street, Bathurst Street, in Toronto, not paying very close attention, when I noticed she was collecting little flowers along the way . . . What struck me was how unconscious the whole thing was. She wasn’t doing it for praise, she was just doing it.” I love this point. The description on the back of this book says that “Each flower becomes a gift, and whether the gift is noticed or ignored, both giver and recipient are transformed by their encounter.” I think I like Lawson’s interpretation better. What we have here is a girl who is bringing beauty with her, and disposing of it at just the right times. It becomes a kind of act of grace. Small beauties. Small person.
Now we know from Roger’s interview that Lawson created a rough dummy of the book and the way he envisioned it, but how artist Sydney Smith chose to interpret that storyline seems to have been left entirely up to him. Wordless books give an artist such remarkable leeway. I’ve seen some books take that freedom and waste it on the maudlin, and I’ve seen others make a grab for the reader’s heart only to miss it by a mile. The overall feeling I get from Sidewalk Flowers, though, is a quiet certitude. This is not a book that is pandering for your attention and love. Oh, I’m sure that some folks out there will find the sequence with the homeless man on the bench a bit too pat, but to those people I point out the dead bird. How on earth does an artist show a girl leaving flowers by a dead bird without tripping headlong into the trite or pat? I’ve no idea. All I know is that Smith manages it.
Much of this has to do with the quality of the art. Smith’s tone is simultaneously serious and chock full of a kind of everyday wonder. His city is not too clean, not too dirty, and just the right bit of busy. For all that it’s a realistic urban setting, there’s something of the city child to its buzz and bother. A kid who grows up in a busy city finds a comfort in its everyday bustle. There are strangers here, sure, but there’s also a father who may be distracted but is never any more than four or five feet away from his daughter. Her expressions remain muted. Not expressionless, mind you, but you pay far more attention to her actions than her emotions. What she is feeling she’s keeping to herself. As for the panels, Smith knows how to break up each page in a different way. Sometimes images will fill an entire page. Other times there will be panels and white borders. Look at how the shelves in a secondhand shop turn the girl and her dad into four different inadvertent panels. Or how the dead bird sequence can be read top down or side-to-side with equal emotional gut punches.
The placement of each blossom deserves some credit as well. Notice how Smith (or was it Lawson?) chooses to show when the flowers are bestowed. You almost never see the girl place the flowers. Often you only see them after the fact, as the bird or dog or mother remains the focus of the panel and the girl hurries away. The father is never bedecked, actually. He seems to be the only person in the story who isn’t blessed by the gifts, but that’s probably because he’s a stand-in more than a parent. For adults reading this book, he’s a colorless reason not to worry about the girl’s capers. His purpose is to help her travel across the course of the book. Then, at the end, she takes the last remaining daisy, tucks it behind her ear, and walks onto the back endpapers where the pattern changes from merely a lovely conglomeration of flower and bird images to a field. A field waiting to be explored.
The use of color is probably the detail the most people will notice, even on a first reading of the story. In interviews Lawson has said that folks have told him that the girl’s hoodie reminds them of Peter in The Snowy Day or Little Red Riding Hood. She’s a spot of read traveling through broken gray. Her flowers are always colorful, and then there are those odd little blasts of color along her path. The dress of a woman at a bus stop is filled with flowers of its own. The oranges of a fruit stand beckon. The closer the girl approaches her home, the brighter the colors become. That grey wash that filled the lawns in the park turn a sweet pure green. As the girl climbs the steps to her mother (whose eyes are never seen), even her dad has taken a rosy hue to his cheeks.
After you pick up your 400th new baby book OR story about an animal that wants to dance ballet OR tale of a furry woodland creature that thinks that everyone has forgotten its birthday, you begin thinking that all the stories that could possibly be told to children have been written already. Do not fall into this trap. If Sidewalk Flowers teaches us nothing else it is that a single child could inspire a dozen picture books in the course of a single hour, let alone a day. There’s a reason folks are singing this book’s praises from Kalamazoo to Calgary. It’s a book that reminds you why we came up with the notion of wordless picture books in the first place. Affecting, efficient, moving, kind. Lawson’s done the impossible. He wrote poetry into a book without a single word, and you wouldn’t have it any other way.
On shelves March 17th.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher.
Like This? Then Try:
- Big Red Lollipop by Rukhsana Khan – For another picture book about grace.
- Knuffle Bunny by Mo Willems – For a tale of a girl and her father out for a walk in the city.
- The Silver Button by Bob Graham – For a tale that matches this one in terms of small city moments and tone.
Blog Reviews: Nine Kinds of Pie
Professional Reviews: A star from Kirkus
Interviews: Roger Sutton talks with JonArno Lawson about the book.
Misc: I can’t be the only person out there who thought of this comic after reading this book.
And here’s the official trailer.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
SLJ Blog Network