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The Playgrounds of Babel

by JonArno Lawson and Piet Grobler (ill.)


One of the most remarkable things about JonArno Lawson’s new picture book – a retelling of a retelling of the biblical story of the Tower of Babel – is that it’s based on personal experience. When Lawson was five, his best friend moved to Germany for six months. When the friend returned, they were so happy to be reunited until they realized they could no longer communicate: Lawson’s friend had lost all his English in what – for an adult – would be a short time away. Writes Lawson in his author’s note: “When I first came across the Babel story, probably around the same age, this experience gave it a credibility it might not otherwise have had.”

Nowadays, kids would just whip out Google Translate and be done with it, but Lawson keeps that slayer of origin stories happily at bay in this simple, heartening tale about myth, ingenuity, and the human need to connect. It begins when two young girls – one dark-skinned, the other fair – see a group of children in the distance listening to an elderly woman who, with her headscarf and smock dress, has the look of a Russian babushka. Only one of the girls speaks the woman’s language (which is represented by a series of circles and lines, like Morse code), so she takes on the role of translator for her friend.


The woman is telling the story of the Tower of Babel but with a twist, tailoring it to her audience with the addition of a fire-breathing dragon sent to destroy the tower and two (other) young girls as protagonists. When God’s wrath against human tower-building means the girls in the old woman’s story are suddenly unable to communicate, they’re naturally distressed but soon come up with an ingenious solution: they sing songs they both know in order to decode the lyrics.

South African–born Piet Grobler’s sketch illustrations, which dabble in a variety of techniques, media, and palettes (including black and white), are perfectly suited to a tale about diversity and pulling order from chaos. (Ample use of white space means the chaos never quite takes over.) And Lawson injects his tale with additional charm by exploiting his two heroines’ personality differences to comic effect: one’s a natural tale-teller, the other a stickler for accuracy who initially objects to the presence of the dragon on the grounds that it wasn’t in the original story. Like us, however, she still wants to know what happens to it at the end.