It’s been a banner week for Toronto author JonArno Lawson and illustrator Sydney Smith. Within hours of their book, Sidewalk Flowers, winning the Governor General’s Literary Award in the illustrated book category on Oct. 27, The New York Times announced that the title had also made its list of the best illustrated children’s books of 2015.
“It’s an amazing feeling, but also strange, because it’s a very quiet story,” says Lawson. “I have a feeling that the book itself would be very surprised if it knew what was happening to it.”
For Smith, the double honour is confirmation that he’s chosen the right path. “In 2000, my printmaking instructor gave me a GG handbill advertising that year’s shortlist of children’s book illustrators. He said, ‘This could be you,’ and never mentioned it again. Ever since, it’s been a dream that I kept to myself,” says Smith. “Years later, when I taught night classes on children’s illustration, I would use the NYT list as a source for teachable material. I never imagined that one day I might find myself on it.”
Sidewalk Flowers, published in March by Groundwood Books, has become a bit of a phenomenon. The wordless picture book, with a story Lawson conceived of and Smith executed visually, has sold in 10 territories and garnered international attention.
“It doesn’t always happen that the most meaningful projects are also the most successful, which is just one more reason that publishing Sidewalk Flowers has been such a joy,” says Groundwood publisher Sheila Barry. “We have reprinted twice since March, and the good news just keeps getting better for this beautiful picture book.”
The process of creating the book was a bit unorthodox. The idea for the story came to Lawson after a walk home along Bathurst Street with his daughter in 2008. “As we walked, she gathered little flowers out of sidewalk cracks – the street seemed grey and ugly, and I realized she was seeing the beauty in it, and I wasn’t seeing it. I was rushing and missing everything. When we got home she decorated everyone with flowers – her little brothers didn’t even notice her doing it,” says Lawson. “At some point shortly after it struck me that the whole sequence – going out of a grey and black and whitish world into a world of more colour, with the collecting and giving of flowers, without any words, would be beautiful. … I could see the whole thing and describe it, but I couldn’t draw it.”
The book was initially turned down by seven or eight publishers, but “once Sheila Barry accepted it at Groundwood, I knew she would find the perfect person to illustrate it,” says Lawson.
Enter Sydney Smith. The East Coast native had a few picture-book illustration gigs under his belt when Sidewalk Flowers came his way. Though Lawson provided a written outline of the story for Smith to base his illustrations on, the artist had an unusual amount of autonomy on the project.
“It was open enough that I was allowed to put my own spin on it,” Smith told Q&Q in March. “Everything went into the drawing – I didn’t have to dance around the words or find ways to avoid redundancy.”
Lawson credits Smith’s art for much of the book’s success. “The pictures are heartbreakingly beautiful – I think that’s the clearest reason it’s gotten noticed,” he says. “But I think a lot of people respond also to the notion that there are things happening that they’re not seeing when they rush, and also that it’s good to do things for their own sake – that quiet, anonymous charity is the only real sort of charity there is. That was at the heart of it for me, and I think a lot of people, cross-culturally, respond to that. It’s a basic human thing.”