JonArno Lawson Talks with Roger

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jonarno lawsonJust prior to calling JonArno in Toronto, I posted to Facebook: "Interviewing poet JonArno Lawson in a few minutes about his new book Sidewalk Flowers. Which is wordless. A wordless book by a poet. My job is not easy here." But it was.

Roger Sutton: Tell me about this wordless book you wrote. What does it mean to write a wordless book?

JonArno Lawson: That's a good question. What I did sort of disappears into what Sydney [Smith, the book's illustrator] did. Basically, I was walking with my daughter down an ugly street, Bathurst Street, in Toronto, not paying very close attention, when I noticed she was collecting little flowers along the way. When we got home, she decorated my wife's hair with the flowers, and put some on the baby's hat, and gave some to her other little brother, and then went off and did something else. What struck me was how unconscious the whole thing was. She wasn't doing it for praise, she was just doing it. I thought that would make a beautiful little book, and it would be great without words. The person reading it would see things the way I had seen them, without any commentary.

RS: How did it occur to you to turn this into a book? Because normally for you, I would imagine, turning something into a book involves, you know, writing something down.

Lawson_Sketchbook cover300JL: I'd never thought about writing a wordless book before. I'm really not a very good artist. So I jotted the idea down and then I started sketching it out as a little dummy, just to see what it would look like. My editor, Sheila Barry, was intrigued. She liked the idea, and she had some very good editorial suggestions. She said it was too family-focused; there had to be some interaction with the world. She suggested having the little girl give a flower to someone outside the family, so that's where that little sequence comes from — giving the flower to the dog, putting one on the dead bird—

RS: And the man on the bench.

JL: Yes. And Sheila was absolutely right. The story needed that. She also said, "Wouldn't it be nice if she kept a flower for herself at the end?" I hadn't thought of that, and it seemed perfect — that you should keep a little of whatever it is for yourself, too.

RS: I would think the initial impulse with a poet would be, "Okay, what are my words for this?"

LawsonSketches1_300JL: Usually when I write I'm driven by sound. Someone will say something, I'll hear a few words together, and if I can work it into something sensible, great. (Most of the time I can't.) Most of what I write doesn't turn out well, but often enough it does. But this time there was absolutely nothing sound-oriented. The whole thing seemed very visual. Even the idea that you would have just a little bit of color at the start — the first part of our walk was a very gray street — and then as we got closer to home there was more color. It seemed symbolic. So the whole thing came to me in a visual way. It felt like to provide any words would take away, instead of add.

RS: What kind of work did you do with the illustrator? How did you find him?

JL: Sheila had seen Sydney's work and thought he would be perfect. I didn't know his work, really, but I was quite open to anything. When I saw the first pictures he did, I couldn't believe it. They were just beautiful, beyond anything I could have thought of or hoped for. He had my storyboard, the little dummy I had made, and I gave him notes: "I'd like for there to be a little bit of color and then for it to build," that sort of thing. But Sydney had so much freedom to pace the story, visually, and I don't think he'd ever worked that way before. The little panel sections — they were his idea. Once Sheila and Michael Solomon, the art director, saw what he was doing, they just said to him, "Keep going. Whatever you do is going to be brilliant." So that's how his part evolved. It was almost as if I wrote a melody, and then he wrote his own melody that harmonized with it perfectly.

RS: Whose idea was it to put her into a little red riding hood?

JL: That was Sydney. I had said I wanted the color to start with the flowers, but it was Sydney's idea to put the color also into her coat, which I think was brilliant.

RS: We've been having this discussion on Calling Caldecott about Marla Frazee's The Farmer and the Clown. With a wordless book, there are so many different ways you can interpret what's going on; the author has less control over what the viewer-reader is going to make of the story. In your book I kept seeing these "Little Red Riding Hood" allusions: "Oh, here she is, wandering off the path. Oh, the dad's not paying attention." And I thought of the Gunniwolf story, where she's wandering through the woods and keeps seeing flowers and picking them, and the wolf comes out of the woods and surprises her. So it had all kinds of folkloric resonance for me. But is that me, or is that in the story?

JL: It actually didn't hit me until a friend said, "Look, it's like 'Little Red Riding Hood,'" and I thought, "Wow, it's so true. It really works." Someone else said they thought of the girl in the red coat in Schindler's List, which also wouldn't have occurred to me.

RS: Did you ever see Don't Look Now? That Julie Christie-Donald Sutherland movie where they're in Venice, and they see this little creature in a red coat constantly just around the corner from them?

JL: No.

RS: Don't watch it at night.

JL: [Children's literature scholar] Philip Nel said he saw a lot of Ezra Jack Keats, The Snowy Day, in Sidewalk Flowers.

RS: Yes, particularly in that beautiful picture of the girl embracing her mother, where she becomes almost abstract, held against the mother's chest. You really see Peter's hood from The Snowy Day, sure enough.

JL: Yes.

RS: How do you share wordless books with your children? Or any children? I never knew quite how to do it as a librarian.

LawsonSketches2_300JL: I have a son in grade one, and he really wanted me to come in and show the book to his class. I was quite nervous about it because I've always relied on words. So I just showed them the pages and I asked them what they made of it. That seemed to work well. They had a chance to tell the story, to give their own interpretation. A lot of them were quite fascinated by the dead bird. That really drew out a lot of comments and memories.

RS: How do you know when to turn the page with a wordless book?

JL: I tend to get nervous, so I probably turn the pages too quickly. There's so much detail, so much to look at. Every time I've looked at the book I've seen something new.

RS: It's an interesting view of city life in that it's neither idealized nor is it completely spooky, but there are elements, I think, of both in the pictures. It's a very real place.

JL: Sydney had just moved here, to Toronto, from Halifax, and I had wanted him to capture that part of the city [Bathurst Street]. There's a railway underpass in the book that is exactly like the railway underpass my daughter and I walked through. There's a scene with a bus stop, and the little girl is going up the embankment, and they're about to turn a corner. Sydney has actually taken two places along our route and put them together. Up till then you're really seeing something of Toronto, and a bit of its Chinatown. After that, I think it's more Sydney's imagination. The landscape, the background.

RS: How did you feel about his portrayal — or maybe this is your portrayal — of the dad, who is basically pretty inattentive through a lot of this?

JL: My wife said to me, "This being your story, you don't come across very well. But on the other hand, the fact that you did notice what was going on, the fact that you were able to get it down, means that you must have been paying a bit of attention." I kind of like how on the page where he gets home, the mother's looking out back, the dad is just shown in shadow. He looks sort of like a failure, his head pointed downwards. It's a bit dreary for the dad, I guess. I thought it was well done.

RS: But he's always waiting for her. She dawdles over this flower or that flower, and it's not like he moves on without her, forgetting that she's there.

Lawson_bookpanels3_300JL: I love the scene where he turns back with his hand held out, right after the bird. He never goes too far. He's aware of where she is.

RS: Do you find that your kids make you more aware of things in situations like this, while walking?

JL: Oh, yes. I couldn't write for children until I had kids, and then they completely redirected me. Especially the way they use language. A kid learning language is using it for the first time, so they use it in such idiosyncratic ways, which has been very useful for me.

RS: It must really change your perspective.

JL: I don't know what I would have done without my kids. Not just as a person, but also as a writer.

RS: What changed about your writing from before having kids to after (aside from it being for children)?

JL: I think it became more playful, seeing everything new through them and hearing language differently. And they ask really difficult questions from early on.

lawson_sidewalk flowersRS: Has your daughter asked you any difficult questions about this book?

JL: No, she was delighted. The book was rejected many times, and she would say, "Don't worry. It's such a beautiful story, I'm sure it will get picked up."

RS: Such an old pro.

JL: She's now thirteen, and she was seven in the story. But she's delighted that it's getting good attention.

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Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton

Editor Emeritus Roger Sutton was editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc., from 1996-2021. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his MA in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a BA from Pitzer College in 1978.

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