• Posted on May 17, 2015

Sidewalk Flowers

This is it. Sidewalk Flowers is one of those books. A book that gets it right. All of it. The writing, the tone, the illustrations, and above all, the sentiment. At it’s core Sidewalk Flowers is a story about Sidewalk Flowers coverkindness, and radiating from that – gratitude and appreciation. It’s also about opening our eyes, seeing the small things that so often pass us by.

Author JonArno Lawson found the perfect illustrator in Sydney Smith and together they create a world that is decidedly urban, but not cold. It’s true there is little colour at the beginning of the story, but the scenes are rich with life – if you just know where to look.

Sidewalk Flowers picking dandelions

The fact that a young girl is able to find quiet beauty in her bustling surroundings is not surprising. Children are very good at noticing what we ignore; what we are too distracted or hurried to see. The wordless story is told in a series of panels, almost like a graphic novel. In an otherwise black & white setting, the only colour is the red of the girl’s hoodie as she walks hand in hand with her father through the city streets. This is a particularly good device, as the vivid colour draws us in, slows us down, until we see what she sees: a yellow flower growing in a crack in the sidewalk, a stand of fruit, a woman’s flowery dress, the little lives that are lost, the big lives that are equally lost. She places her flowers on the breast of a dead bird, picks more flowers – drinking in their scent. She hooks a purple flower into the shoe of man sleeping (sleeping it off?) on a park bench. In one of the loveliest scenes of the book she shakes the paw of a dog and then places a bouquet under his collar. Unlike her father who is busy with his errands and only passively attentive to her, the girl is engaging directly with her world, and in a quiet, childlike way, she is saying  – I SEE YOU. Sidewalk Flowers reminds us that at every moment, we have a chance to do something meaningful, even if it’s just acknowledging what, or who, is in front of us.

Sidewalk Flowers four panel

It’s important to note that the first flower she plucks from the sidewalk is not in fact a flower but a dandelion. A weed. To the girl, to any child, it is a beautiful flower, and she is right; dandelions are beautiful, but our ingrained adult prejudice prevents us from seeing a dandelion as anything but an annoyance, if we see it at all. In truth, dandelions are the first ‘flower’ of spring, dotting the landscape with bright colour and providing the first food for hungry bees, butterflies, and other insects. They are useful and deserving of our appreciation, if for nothing else than their ability to push though the meanest of circumstances, like a crack in the sidewalk, and thrive.

Sidewalk Flowers dog

The girl doesn’t know this, of course; she just thinks the weeds are pretty and that is enough, and when she feels moved, which is often, she shares her bouquets. These small acts of kindness go unseen by anyone except the recipients of her generosity and the reader, and in this way, the perspective is nicely played with, giving us a glimpse into her world, but also allowing us to watch her interact within this black & white urban setting, as if she herself is the flower. The vignettes gradually infuse with colour as the girl nears home; Lawson’s watercolours becoming softer and more saturated, particularly in the family scenes toward the end. And still, we see her – the little girl in the red hoodie, flower in her hair, surrounded by beauty wherever she goes. It’s all about the perspective, you see.

Sidewalk Flowers backyard

A three-time winner of the Lion and the Unicorn Award for Excellence in North American Children’s Poetry, JonArno Lawson is the author of numerous books for children and adults, including Enjoy It While It Hurts, Down in the Bottom of the Bottom of the Box, and Think Again. He lives in Toronto with his wife and three children. Great interview HERE about writing a picture book without words.

Sydney Smith was born in rural Nova Scotia, and has been drawing since an early age. Since graduating from NSCAD University, he has illustrated multiple children’s books, including the wordless picture book Sidewalk Flowers, and he has received awards for his illustrations, including the Lillian Shepherd Memorial Award for Excellence in Illustration. He now lives in Toronto and works in a shared studio space in Chinatown where he eats too many banh mi sandwiches and goes to the library or the Art Gallery of Ontario on his breaks. Read how Smith created the illustrations for Sidewalk Flowers HERE.

Sidewalk Flowers by JonArno Lawson, illustrations by Sydney Smith. Published by Groundwood Books, 2015

Sidewalk Flowers looking up

  • Posted on July 29, 2014

The Promise

Be the change that you wish to see in the world ~ Mahatma Gandhi

If I had to name the theme I am most drawn to in children’s literature, it would be the transformational power of nature. It must have started with a youthful reading of The Secret Garden, or perhaps it’s a Canadian thing, but whatever the source, a walk in the woods can do wonders, figuratively of course, and also metaphorically, in books. But what if there are no woods? Arguably, children’s books that reflect (and celebrate) the urban experience are growing in frequency and popularity, but few deal directly with the other side of city life – the concrete wastelands that are the byproduct of urban decay and our ever growing estrangement from the natural world.

The Promise cover

Most children’s books tend toward the utopian, especially in terms of setting. In The Promise, Nicola Davies and Laura Carlin hold up a mirror to our dying, degraded cities, and then, with a simple gesture, present us with a most beautiful and transformational resolution.

It is unclear whether The Promise is set in the present, or in a dystopian future, but the initial pages suggest a parched world where nothing grows. Carlin’s illustrations, stunning in their cool, abstract beauty, depict scenes bereft of colour: bleak, industrial, and entirely cheerless. The patchwork of buildings, distinguished only by the number of blackened windows, seem lifeless. The are streets empty, but for a few dogs and a scattering of people, all of whom reflect the broken connections of a town that has lost its way. There are many types of disconnection in Davies’ evocative tale, but threading through all is the disconnect from nature. In a harsh and ungiving environment, the people have lost the ability to find fellowship with each other. The young girl at the centre of the story does not distinguish herself from the ‘mean, hard and ugly’ people of her community. Indeed, she will even steal a bag from an old woman.

This is where The Promise takes flight. After a struggle, the old woman promises to let the bag go if the girl promises to plant what is within. Dismissing her words, the girl makes the promise, and is surprised to find neither food nor money in the bag, but acorns.

“I stared at them, so green, so perfect, and so many, and I understood the promise I had made. I held a forest in my arms, and my heart was changed.”

The Promise seeds grow

Like a Johnny Appleseed for the 21st century, she sets off on her journey, planting the acorns along roadways, train tracks, apartment buildings, abandoned parks; anywhere, and everywhere. When the trees begin to sprout, the people are curious. Curiosity soon gives way to wonder. Wonder gives way to joy. As life returns to the city, a community is reborn, and the pages of The Promise fill with breathtaking, transcendent colour.

The Promise colourful trees

Green spread through the city like a song, breathing to the sky, drawing down the rain like a blessing.”

Her mission continues, to other ‘sad and sorry’ cities, until she has, in turn, become an old woman with a bag of acorns. It is at this point she begins to narrate her story.

What is most profound about The Promise is that Nicola Davies takes a complex issue like urban decay, and shows us in simple, elegant prose the human cost – in a state of nature deficit, we cannot thrive. We may not even be able to live. More importantly, she places the responsibility for change on individual acts of stewardship. An important lesson not just for kids, but for everyone.

The Promise is a deeply moving and gloriously illustrated book that does not shy away from scenes of despair, nor does it suffer from a failure of the imagination, like so many other stories with an environmental message. On the contrary, Davies and Carlin envision a brighter, more communal, and nature-abundant future, in the actionable now.

The Promise birds

Nicola Davies is a zoologist and an award winning author of many nature-centric books for children. Clearly, she is a woman who has taken a walk or two in the woods. A woman, in other words, after my own heart.

The Promise is Laura Carlin’s first picture book, which is rather astounding. A graduate of the Royal College of Art in London, Ms Carlin has recently illustrated The Iron Man by Ted Hughes.

The Promise by Nicola Davies, illustrations by Laura Carlin. Candlewick Press, 2014

For additional reading along a similar vein, I would suggest The Curious Garden by Peter Brown, which is based on the guerrilla gardening movement on Manhattan’s abandoned High Line.

On a related note, I love this Ted Talk by Amanda Burden, former city planner for New York, on how public spaces make cities work.

  • Posted on October 15, 2013

Young Frank Architect

“Youth is a quality, not a matter of circumstances.”  Frank Lloyd Wright

So begins Frank Viva’s new book, Young Frank Architect, and this reassuring adage plays out in the inspiring story of passion and artistic vision as embodied by a young boy, his grandfather, and a host of famous architects and designers. Young Frank Architect is also an homage to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, a place I have not yet visited but whose breadth of genius has long been a draw. With the publication of Young Frank Architect, a trip to MoMA is in order, and though contained within the pages of a picture book, the famous museum is no less an adventure.

Young Frank Architect book buildingYoung Frank is a creative soul with a very broad idea of what it means to be an architect. Old Frank, his grandfather, is an actual architect whose views have, perhaps, narrowed over the years. The boy aspires to be like his grandfather in more ways than one, even adopting his straw hat and comically round glasses. The grandfather watches his grandson build twisty skyscrapers out of piles of books and a chair of toilet paper rolls, and attempts to educate the boy on the rules of his profession. “I don’t think architects make chairs. And you really can’t sit in this one, can you?” says Frank, which of course, deflates the young boy’s exuberance. Bewildered by his grandson’s unorthodox architectural creations, Old Frank takes the boy to the Museum of Modern Art “…to see the work of some REAL architects.’

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  • Posted on April 03, 2012

Nurturing Nature

This blog is exclusively for the review of new and older picture books, and yet I feel compelled to comment on an article I read a few weeks ago on the interwebs. It’s not for lack of opinions on other topics, but the findings in this study seemed contrary to my observations as a former bookseller and as a long-time collector of picture books. One proviso: I am fairly focused in my picture book predilections. It’s all about the illustration, in other words, although to be fair, great writing usually goes hand in hand with great art. Also, up to this point I had not made particular note of setting, at least within a sociological context. As a result, there is a lot of stuff I simply don’t see, because the visuals of most books do not resonate (for me.) It is therefore possible, and perhaps probable, that I’ve missed patterns and trends in my multi-national, multi-genre search for illustration excellence. Trust me, it wouldn’t be the first time a trend has passed me by…

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  • Posted on April 27, 2010

When Gardens Go Rogue

There are many things I love: picture books, walking, weevils, ketchup, Hoarders (the TV show), large foreheads, anthropomorphism. Yeah, about that last one…it’s virtually impossible for me to look at a tree, a magpie, a spider, or my 22 pound cat and not see human emotion pooling in their eyes…or branches. I cheer when a plant sprouts a new leaf. My library is a living, breathing thing, and I would never, ever intentionally break the spine of a book. Whenever I am in a garden, I send my love to the bees. It seems rude not to do these things.

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