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March 12, 2015

Sidewalk Flowers by Jon Arno Lawson and Sydney Smith

sidewalk-flowersIt’s from picture books that I’ve learned that the best books have to be read at least 10 times before you really get a handle on them. Case in point: Sidewalk Flowers by JonArno Lawson and Sydney Smith. A wordless picture book (though a wordless book with an author, take note!) can slip past one pretty quickly. The first time I read it, I thought it was okay. A bit weird. The next few times, I still wasn’t sure. It’s the story of a young girl walking through the city with her father, her red-hoodie one of the few spots of colour on the page for much of the book. The other colour comes from the flowers she encounters on her journey, flowers which are actually weeds, which is the kind of distinction only adults make. In their ubiquity, we forget to note how remarkable it is that a dandelion—a living thing—can grow between cracks in the sidewalk. That a wild thing can be so determined to live, and how wildness continually thwarts a city’s attempt to tame.

SidewalkFlowersImageAnd the flowers grow, and the child finds them, picks them. She’s the only one who notices these bits of wild colour on the urban scene, but they’re not all she’s noticing. (This novel’s grasp of the child’s eye view makes it an interesting companion to the award-winning The Man With the Violin). As her father talks away on his cell-phone, and the people around her conduct their business, she sees other things, other colours—the orange of citrus fruit for sale at a greengrocers, the warm yellow of a taxi-cab, a woman in a floral dress who is reading a book at a bus stop. She’s gathering her wild bouquet, part of which she, calling no attention to herself in the process, offers to a dead bird she walks by on the sidewalk, then to a man who is a asleep on a park bench, and to a neighbour’s dog. And as she leaves her flowers, something remarkable is happening to the world all around her—bit by bit, the city becomes rich with colour. Leaves appear on the trees and the sky turns blue. Through the girl’s small acts, the world is transformed.

It all happens so subtly, it takes until around the 10th read that it begins to be clear. And even then, the reader is still uncovering new details in Smith’s illustrations—the lion in Chinatown, a cat in the window, the streetcar coming around the corner (which is red!). The images are made interesting and complicated by shadows and reflections, adding extra texture to the story. Smith is depicting an any-city, though the savvy among us will see Toronto with its distinctive architecture and peculiar topography suggested by houses situated up flights up steps on steep hills.

Sidewalk Flowers is a book with mystery at its core, a book that is a manifestation of its theme of generosity, for it has given me something new every time I have encountered it. A wordless book too is an important tool for literacy, for it allows parent and child to remember the reason we open books at all. For them to approach a story for once on the very same level—a whole world to be explored together.

One thought on “Sidewalk Flowers by Jon Arno Lawson and Sydney Smith”

  1. Hello from Portugal. My name is Corine, first time author, writer, Interior Designer/Decorator and animal lover. Whenever I am in a book store and luckily a new one recently openen near me, as so many are closing down, I walk to the children’s book section and pick up any book that catches my eye and open it. If I like it, I will start to read it, standing in the shop. If I really like it I usually end up buying it. Last week my eye fell on Sidewalk Flowers which for me was the most interesting one displayed. In Portugal it is called Flores Mágicas. I liked the book straight away. Lovely underlying message and very effective illustrations. Both children and adults can identify with this visual story. It says so much without words, and, at the same time, provokes thought and discussion. It reminded me of when I was a little girl always picking wild flowers everywhere even from other peoples gardens, not aware of personal property or space or danger. Only the magic of flowers and the will to please someone with them. Love it!

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