Title: Sidewalk Flowers
Author: JonArno Lawson
Illustrator: Sydney Smith
Publisher: Groundwood Books (2015)
Language: English / Wordless
I've had this book for a while, and I loved it, but something special made me pull it out of the PBC today: an article I came across online about this exquisite wordless book being donated to each Syrian refugee family welcomed into Canada. Read again with these new eyes, this book takes on special significance, so I will talk about it in the context of being gifted to refugees newly in a safe home overseas.
Let me also say from the outset that for readers who are new to English, a wordless book is the perfect gift. The ability to be read in any language means that it can be a point of conversation and learning between multiple readers - parent and child, teacher and student, with siblings or new friends.
When I think of children from war-torn countries reading this book, several things come to mind and some of them bring a dull ache into my heart. The story of a small girl who can walk safely through the street, letting go of Daddy's hand as he talks on his mobile phone while resting his shopping by the side of the road while she climbs up embankments to gather wildflowers I feel would be painfully out of reach to refugees in Syria, and along the escape route as families struggle to survive in any way possible. On the other hand, the idea that little tiny pockets of color exist in places to which young children are naturally attuned might be as true in Syria as it is in Canada. The little girl's tribute to the fallen bird is absolutely heartbreaking in the context of children who have likely lost family members along the way. It makes me wonder what feelings this page will bring up for Syrian refugee parents and children who read it, and how they will deal with these emotions. It is easy for politicians and others to speak of the "problem" of refugees, but in all honesty, how absolutely insignificant these inconveniences seem compared to the devastating loss of life and the constant threat of violence from which these families have so desperately fled?
Another book I previously wrote about, My Two Blankets, uses color to show the journey of refugees and the difficulties of arriving in a new land where everything (including language) is strange. In Sidewalk Flowers, in the context of being read with refugee children who do not yet speak English, the gradual transition from black and white to color in this book is surely indicative of arriving in a foreign world, and finding your own place bit by bit as you gather beauty along the way. The language-free format of the book makes it possible for this book to be read in whatever way it is most needed.
For Syrian refugees arriving in Canada, this gift is an eloquent and deeply meaningful welcome to a new, more secure world. For the rest of us who buy this book, it is the perfect Christmas (or New Year, or Hanukkah, or Pancha Ganapati or other holiday) celebration this December as we open our hearts to the love of humanity and innocent children.