A Day for Sandcastles continues the happy collaboration between JonArno Lawson and illustrator Qin Leng that began with last year’s Over the Shop. Like its predecessor, A Day for Sandcastles is a wordless picture book, a fact that’s easy to forget given its myriad delights. As a story, it lacks for nothing. Presented in panels, like a junior graphic novel, it’s populated with characters that feel fully realized despite never uttering a word. Lawson is also a poet, a skill he brings to bear in the book’s gentle cadence and flow. Leng picks up on the intrinsic sense of movement in her gorgeous illustrations, which combine scratchy pen-and-ink with daubed watercolour to wonderful effect – they’re soft yet precise all at once.
The book begins, as so many trips to the beach do, on a four-lane highway that leads to an uninspiring parking lot, where a coach bus discharges the family of five that is to be our main focus: three kids who look to be around 11 years old and under, and their opposite-sex parents. That initial contrast between reality and idyll becomes a kind of theme. No sooner do the kids tumble down the dunes to the ocean’s edge than we fall into a rhythm of progress and setback. As their sandcastle begins to take shape, the kids start to argue – over technique? Approach? We can’t be sure, and indeed, at times their expressions are ambiguous. (Sensing crabbiness, the parents summon them for a sandwich break, a call the local seagulls heed as well.) Along with internal strife, they must cope with unexpected outside forces: a woman’s floppy purple hat blows off and lands on their castle, crushing its battlements, and a small child races toward it with what looks like destructive intent. As the day unfolds, the sea makes its own incursions. By late afternoon, high tide has compelled the kids to relocate their castle right up at the dune’s edge.
Leng keeps things interesting by experimenting with distance and angles; this is a very cinematic book. At times, we zoom out so far that the kids are but a footnote in a colourful panorama scene into which families of different sizes and ilks come and go. It’s all fodder for parent–child discussion, yet part of the beauty of A Day for Sandcastles is that children of any age can “read” it all by themselves.