At some point in the process of growing up, picture books become disregarded as legitimate reading material — they are supposedly for children, for those not yet prepared to embrace the full complexity of words without illustrative support.
It’s a sad phenomenon, because there are some wonderful picture books being published whose stories can be as enlightening and emotionally potent for adults as they are for children. Some of these, like Sidewalk Flowers, are arguably more sophisticated for their lack of need for words at all.
Sidewalk Flowers is a collaborative effort by Jon Arno Lawson (a poet primarily known for his children’s poetry — I highly recommend Down in the Bottom of the Bottom of the Box), and Sydney Smith. The story emerged from an actual walk in Toronto taken by Lawson, and his seven-year-old daughter Sophie; Lawson was struck by the walk’s potential as the premise for a wordless story, and Smith, as the illustrator, had the task of putting it to paper.
The summary on the back of the book is apt: “A little girl collects wildflowers while on a walk with her distracted father. Each flower becomes a gift, and whether the gift is noticed or ignored, both giver and recipient are transformed by their encounter.”
Aside from the visuals, one of the most striking qualities of Sidewalk Flowers is its poetic aesthetic. It recalls the way the process of poetry, as represented in the three lines of haiku, was once described to me: first, the observation, the oh! moment; then notice some quality about it, ah; then notice what you have noticed — finishing the ohm of understanding. In this book, there is an intense focus on the minute, emphasized by Smith’s meticulous attention to detail, with each separate image becoming a striking, intimate moment as poignant as haiku.
Lawson’s poetry for children is remarkable for its ability to entertain whim and play while maintaining respect for the intelligence and intuition of his audience — respect, in other words, for their humanness. This is reflected in a piece he wrote for the publisher, Groundwood Books (a division of House of Anansi) regarding the development of Sidewalk Flowers.
“It seemed symbolic to me — Sophie finding colour in the grey world, and then giving away what she’d found — and she didn’t seem to be conscious of what she was doing at all, which also seemed important.”
This idea of unconscious generosity struck me while reading the book, as the story seemed moved by a kind of simple, human kindness that sheds bright colour not only on the illustrations as the story proceeds, but on the state of our world and humanity. After all, doesn’t that say something about our nature, that those qualities do not need to be taught, and can arise spontaneously?
Smith’s illustrative style is well-matched to the story. In his own piece written for Groundwood, he describes the images he creates for the book as a kind of “love letter to Toronto,” which is his second home after Nova Scotia. Smith pays great attention to shadow and light in black and white, and watery flushes of vivid colour to pull the reader’s eyes to what the child in the book apparently notices: first mere flowers bursting out of cracks in the sidewalk, then a woman’s flowery dress or a yellow taxi, then whole swaths of a city park. But I like to think the gradually increasing amounts of colour in the book actually represent what the busy, distracted adult notices thanks to the attention of his daughter: first he recognizes that she is picking flowers, then he starts to notice what she notices about the world. The story becomes not only a commentary on our nature or representative of a particular aesthetic, but a lesson on the way we can see and interact with the world if only we pay attention, and what children can teach us.