If you look closely at the endpapers of Sidewalk Flowers, the new book from JonArno Lawson, illustrated by Sydney Smith, you get a sense of the beauty within. The endpapers are filled with the tiny, intricate drawings of flowers and birds. Keep going, and you fall into the story of a young girl, walking the city streets with her father, who finds beauty in unexpected places.
This story, I should add right off the bat, is wordless. Lawson, an award-winning poet who lives in Canada, conceived the story, and Smith brings it to life with his graceful pen and ink and watercolor illustrations. It’s a special book, this one.
Things start out very grey and shadow-filled. The girl walks along city streets with her father, her red hoodie the only spot of color in many spreads. It certainly evokes Little Red Riding Hood, but as Philip Nel points out in his well-crafted post about this book, it also brings to mind Peter of Ezra Jack Keats’ iconic The Snowy Day. As the girl and her father continue down city sidewalks, she stops to pluck flowers—or, really, what amount to weeds—from cracks and crevices and the sides of cement walkways. They’re brilliant spots of sunshine on otherwise colorless streets with people so busy hurrying that they don’t see these glimpses of life and prosperity. Her own father is distracted by his cellphone and is usually many steps ahead of her. The girl collects these flowers, but she also gives them away: she places one flower into the collar of a dog she meets in the street. A man sleeping on a bench will wake to one in his shoe. In a very poignant spread, her father walks right past a dead bird. The girl stops to place a flower atop the creature.
The palette morphs from the shadows of buildings to soft, warm pastels and rust hues as the girl and her father get closer to home. It’s as if the very story itself blooms with each flower she picks and each one she gives away, and her world (and her father’s) becomes all the brighter with each gift. When she arrives home, she gives one to each of her siblings and stares up into the sky, birds soaring.
Smith’s illustrations are eloquent and he uses panels on many spreads to depict the progression of time and communicate abundant detail to readers. It’s a beautiful book and picture-book making at its best, and I hope it doesn’t fall through the cracks, like so many neglected flowers. It will be on shelves in mid-March, and your life will be all the better if you find a copy and fall in.
It reminds me of a picture book originally published in Sweden in 1998, which will be on shelves here in the U.S. later this year. If I can give you a heads-up about it now, maybe it’ll ring a bell when you see it. Ulf Stark’s When Dad Showed Me the Universe, illustrated by Eva Eriksson, is the story of a boy whose father decides he’s old enough to be shown the universe. They head out one evening to the side of the city where the lights aren’t so bright so that the boy can see the stars spread across the night sky.
On their way, the boy—much like the girl in Sidewalk Flowers—notices the “universe” all around him, not just the universe above his head. They pass the supermarket, the park, the hardware store, and the fish shop. The boy’s head is turned, noticing the animals on the street, and his eyes are wide at the world around him. In my favorite moment, his father whistles, and “the tune floated in a white cloud above his black beret.” As you can see, the boy misses nothing.
When they reach the small hill of the park where the boy is instructed to look up, he first sees a snail, a blade of grass, a thistle. “All of this was the universe!” we read, the boy gazing in wonder at the earth and its many gifts, depicted in what looks to be colored pencils (perhaps crayons?) by Eriksson, a superb illustrator. Despite telling his son earlier that “the entire universe includes everything,” he teases the boy: “Don’t be silly. You’re supposed to look up.”
They both wonder at the sky, but if your head is in the clouds a bit too long, the earth will remind you where you stand: suddenly, the father realizes he’s stepped into a pile of dog poop. The boy finds this funny and marvelous. The father’s shoulders are slumped as they walk back home; he’s lost his enthusiasm for their adventure. “You’re probably too little anyway,” he says. “All I wanted was to show you something beautiful that you’d remember forever.”
Little does he know that he did—the boy won’t soon forget this evening with his father. When his mother asks him how the universe was when the duo arrive home, he responds, “It was beautiful. And funny.” Meanwhile, his father is distracted, still trying to get poop off his boot. Ah, the folly of grown-ups. (And leave it to an import to embrace the poop. On the first page, we also read that the boy’s father, a dentist, takes off his coat “with its flecks of blood.” Europeans seem, on the whole, way less squeamish in their picture books, which I find refreshing.)
Two fine picture books with wisdom for all ages. Don’t let them pass you by.
SIDEWALK FLOWERS. Text copyright © 2015 by JonArno Lawson. Illustrations copyright © 2015 by Sydney Smith. Published by Groundwood Books, Toronto. Spread here reproduced by permission of the publisher.
WHEN DAD SHOWED ME THE UNIVERSE. English language edition © Gecko Press Ltd 2015. Spread here reproduced by permission of the publisher.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.