Jun 4, 2022

Two Wordless Wonders: Something Special for Every Age

Candlewick Press, 2021

The creative pairing of author JonArno Lawson with illustrator Qin Leng was inspired. Both are listed as being residents of Toronto, but I tend to imagine them as being residents of a single mind. I first met their shared brilliance in OVER THE SHOPThis wordless book tells a gradually unfolding but complex story of the transformative power of openness, positivity, curiosity, and inclusion. A young girl lives with her curmudgeonly-grimaced older adult. He's likely, but not necessarily, her grandfather, and they reside together above his shop.They each seem well-established in daily routines, but with different demeanors. When making a stack of breakfast pancakes, his expression is as down-turned as it is when a cat intrudes on his grocery display outside the shop.The girl, however, is intrepidly intent on doing her own chores while noticing and engaging with the cat and other occurrences. She is NOT  relentlessly grinning or apparetnly a 'chipper" child, but is attentive, patient, and respectful of the space others need to feel safe. 

This, after multiple scenes, sets the stage for the "plot": a second residence above the store is available to rent. The apartment has little going for it, as the first potential renter (and reader) observes before making a speedy exit. Then a series of potential residents are shown coming... and quickly going. When a mixed-race young couple arrive, the owner's scowl is even deeper than usual, despite his obvious need for renters. The child intervenes, and he grudgingly concedes. A happy ending, I'd say.

But wait, the story is only half over. 

This is a transformative story, in which the young couple demonstrate gently that they are not only hardworking but eager, friendly, greeting even the fellow on the porch next door, who notes but does not respond to their greetings. As they dig into deep cleaning and restoration to a livable space, the girl joins in their effort, chasing away the hungry cat who threatens the birds nesting on the balcony. 

This is a highly realistic story. Change is not achieved overnight, but small signals of investment of care into the place gradually bear fruit. The tiny trail of cat tidbits that eventually play a role feel symbolic of the overall small steps leading to the gradual taming of the owner, celebrating the infectious power of caring, kindness, and community in warm and wonderful everyday acts.

Whew! Look at all those words up there! Lawson is a poet and poets use words very sparingly. ALL of the above words are mine. This poet, this master of the "just right word", managed to convey his story wordlessly! That means he somehow created and described all of this  in a way that allowed the illustrator ample space for her own creative interpretation, knowing the intent was a wordless story that captured his original creation. And Leng accomplished that with grace and nuance. Each time I "read" this story i note added visual details that enhance it further- from the setting details in the shop, residence, apartment, and neighborhood, to the clothing, body postures, and facial expressions of the central characters and the ones who appear only on a page or two. The story as a whole and in its particular parts and details is fantastic and offers something for every age. The same is true for this subtle and persuasive message.

Candlewick Press, 2022

Their second wordless collaboration is A DAY FOR SANDCASTLES. This, too, displays the nuance and visual appeal of OVER THE SHOP, but takes a very simple premise and conveys a full emotional arc in a circle story about a family day at the beach. A family alights from a tour bus unloading eager beachgoers. The adults set up at the edge of dunes, while the three children head to water's edge to build a sandcastle. Time after time they achieve, or nearly achieve, that goal, only to suffer setbacks from many angles (not just the predictable incoming tide). In this story the fun is in those visual details, noting subtle cues, predicting what could come next, imagining what they will do now (or what the reader might decide to do!). But then ... several factors in quick succession send them all back aboard the bus for a weary but satisfying sunset ride home. It's hard to imagine a more perfect purely-summer picture book! 

Once again, I wondered just what words Lawson might have used to set the stage for these remarkably familiar yet specific and fascinating  images, revealed in a  combination of full spreads, horizontal panels, and comic-style quick sequences. Whatever they were, and whatever editor and/or art director orchestrated these two wordless/visual narratives, they achieved timeless brilliance with both. 

Lawson has paired with other illustrators, notably with Sydney Smith in the multi-award-winning wordless book, SIDEWALK FLOWERS. That's a favorite of mine, one I featured in an earlier post while serving as a Cybils panelist a few years ago:

"This wordless book uses color, detail, subtle facial and body expressions in black/white illustrations with the spot color contrast to lead readers through an emotionally complex story. It is accessible to the very young but offers content to spark potentially intense discussions at any age about relationships, personal expression, and pursuing that often-referenced "in the moment" awareness in daily life."

It was this picture book that alerted me to Lawson, and I've been delighted with where that attention has led. I hope that my small spotlight on these books will bring them to your attention, too, and you'll share them with others!  Wordless books, like these, are accessible to the very young, but carry meaning for every age.

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