One thing I love about picture books is their power to evoke wonder and delight.
Poets, artists, and children are natural allies in capturing such moments. They pay attention to details others pass by.
Now imagine a poet, someone who loves words enough to spend hours honing them down to precise, short-form perfection, writing a book without them! That’s exactly what Toronto poet JonArno Lawson has done in Sidewalk Flowers, illustrated by Sydney Smith and published by Groundwood Books. The book is a delight in every way: story, art, and design.
Lawson’s wordless story is about a little girl, who while walking big-city streets with her distracted father, notices and gathers sidewalk flowers — those weeds growing out of the cracks and crannies.
She then gently distributes these small tokens of beauty and care to animals and people along the way, including her own family when they reach home. These moments are some of the most tender to be found in picture books, without cloying or striking too-sweet notes. The beauty of the girl’s actions are allowed to speak for themselves, which gives us, as readers, emotional space to feel the love and wonderment behind them.
Smith’s illustrations capture the sensory overload of city life, offering details that both grab our attention and remind us how much we tune out. He utilizes a variety of page lay-outs: full page, various combinations of panels and boxes, several double-page spreads, and even the final end papers.
Color, or the lack of it, and white space play a huge role in the visual storytelling. With a few bright exceptions, the city’s buildings, streets, and inhabitants are gray until the turning point in the story when the girl begins distributing her flowers. The warmth of neighborhood and home contrast wonderfully with the anonymity of the city streets in the first half of the book.
Sidewalk Flowers is a gem of wordless storytelling, reminding us to slow down, pay attention to details, be kind, and at least sometimes, not use our words.