Interview with JonArno Lawson and Sydney Smith

 First off, congrats! We adored Sidewalk Flowers. Can you tell us a bit about how you came up with the idea for the book? 
JL: Thank you so much! It was a thrill to find out that Sidewalk Flowers got the Cybils Fiction Picture Book Award!
The idea for the book came from a walk I was taking with my daughter back in 2008 – the story is very much the story of that walk. I knew right away it had to be wordless, but it took me a year or so to think through how to propose it as a book idea.
SS:  Thank you!  For me, I was asked by Sheila Barry to illustrate a wordless story about a girl walking through the city with her father. I had always dreamed of working with Groundwood books so it was an easy yes. Only a few weeks later I was living in Toronto which was already planned before I knew I was working on JonArno’s story. It was perfect timing and the stars were aligned.

After moving to Toronto I started gathering source material for the book. The buildings and the people were all so exciting and overwhelming. Some nights I would look out the window of my studio and see the neon signs of China Town and the sidewalks full of people and feel that electricity. Being in a big city reminded me of all the old street photography I loved from New York and Chicago and I knew I could use that inspiration in this project.

How was the story of Sidewalk Flowers conveyed to the editor/illustrator, or was this a collaboration from the get-go?
Image00003-250x300JL: I told Sheila Barry (the publisher of Groundwood Books, and the editor of this particular book) early on, and she liked it. She gave me some very good advice, but she was at a different press then, and not in a position to take it on. It got rejected a lot – I submitted it to a lot of different presses – and I could understand why, because it was an odd idea – I don’t really blame anyone for turning it down. And the rejections were mostly quite encouraging, actually. Anyway, Sheila was in a position to take it on once she was at Groundwood, and she took the risk. She had seen Sydney’s work and she had a feeling he’d be the perfect illustrator for this story, and that was it. I had the story mapped out spread by spread, with suggestions for details – I wanted it to start out colorless, and for the color to build gradually (for symbolic reasons, but also because that’s what the walk itself was like) –  the geographical setting was important to me (certain spots along the actual walking in Toronto). Beyond that Sydney was free to interpret it in the way he wanted to. So he used my notes, but then he went beyond them, and used other ideas of his own – he used some of my settings, but he also used others that were more visually interesting to him (also in Toronto, but elsewhere in the city). And he used panels, and a kind of graphic novel look – and he made brilliant use of shadows – so in that sense, it was quite collaborative. I had some influence over the visuals, but Sydney also had important influence over the pacing and mood of the story.
SS: I was given an outline and layout. There was a description of the spreads with plenty of room for me to establish an interesting pace and there were notes about the role colour could have throughout the story and specific landmarks. From there I was given freedom to try try different directions and then focus in on the look the book has now. I was working on the book without having contact with JonArno but it was still a collaboration with him. We were on the same page, so to speak.
Sydney Smith. Photo Credit- D. EdwardsAs a poet, what made you so certain that this should be a wordless book/story?
JL: The walk I took with my daughter that day happened without much conversation, though she did sing quite a bit. The story, as a story, appeared in my head without words – so it just seemed from the start that words would take away rather than add anything. The visuals (that I pictured) – I was sure they would work on their own to tell the story if they were done right. I once remember reading an interview with Leonard Cohen where he said something like “I never argue with my voices” which I took to mean – pay attention to your idea, get it down on paper even if it seems strange, and later worry about whether or not it works – don’t kill an idea before exploring it.
SS:  I saw the subtly and gentleness to JonArno’s story. The absence of words meant that gestures of the girl in the red coat were more sacred, in a way.  I feel like text would disturb her and break the devotion she has to her acts and that was an insightful decision of JonArno’s. Not every author would have made that choice to leave out their text despite it being the best for the book.

When I met JonArno after the book was mostly done I realized that what I wanted from the story was the same for him. His vision for the book aligned perfectly with mine. I’m certain that it was Sheila Barry who made sure of that. Oh, she’s good. 

Has there been any particular part of public response that surprised or satisfied you?
JL: The critical and popular response to the book were (and still are) extremely surprising to me. I was so pleased when I saw the finished book – I thought it was beautiful, but I thought we’d be lucky to get a few good reviews, and expected it to sell a few thousand copies over 3 or 4 years in Canada and the United States. I didn’t expect it to sell into the international market, or for people to find so many different uses for it. I also wasn’t familiar with the world of wordless books before this – I had only seen one or two – if I’d known what I know now, I might have been too intimidated to try one of my own. It’s very satisfying to see the story be embraced and understood in so many different parts of the world. It’s very much a story about my family, so whatever happens with it is close to home for me.
SF1SS:  I’m always surprised by the different things people respond to. Responding to the theme of mindfulness is a common response but I noticed that adults seem to appreciate it possibly more than kids. But that makes sense. I think it may be something that adult’s miss from when they were young and love remembering the importance of being present and open minded. On top of that, children respond to the details in the story.

It’s really encouraging that this book is embraced the way it is. Every step of the way it has been created with love and it’s beyond exciting to see people from all over the world respond to that. It really challenges my cynicism. 

SF2If you don’t mind telling us, what are you working on next?
JL: What am I working on next? That’s a short question with a long answer – you might regret asking it!. . .I have a few books coming out over the next few years. I’m illustrating Nelson Ball’s children’s poetry book A Vole on a Roll for Shapes and Sounds Press – it’s coming out fairly soon. . .  I have a book of children’s poetry coming out with Porcupine’s Quill this fall, illustrated by Alec Dempster (I’m not sure of the title yet). And a rhyming picture book called Leap! coming out with Kids Can Press the year after. I’m working on a non-fiction book about cross-cultural play with children, for Wolsak & Wynn – that should be out in 2018. I have a picture book loosely based on my Uncle Holland (called Uncle Holland) coming out with Groundwood in 2017, I believe, and Sydney and I are doing another wordless book together with Groundwood, but I’m not sure when that one’s coming out.  Most of these are done, or almost done, but I have a lot of other manuscripts that I’m working on – mostly with words, but some without.
SS: JonArno and I will be working on another wordless book together in the future but in the meantime I have lots of work to dive into. A book with Groundwood set in Cape Breton and a book with Dial books about a boy and his shadow. Both projects are very exciting. I’m also trying to fit in the time to write my own books.
Thank you so much for your time!
JL: Thank you so much for this – they were all great questions!