Review: Footpath Flowers by JonArno Lawson and Sydney Smith
By Clare Walters
The wordless picturebook, Footpath Flowers, was conceived by the award-winning Canadian writer and poet JonArno Lawson. Lawson (who says he was inspired by a real walk he took with his seven-year-old daughter) created the initial plot line and storyboard sketches, and these were then brought to life by illustrator Sydney Smith – an artist who, like Lawson, is based in Toronto. It was clearly a successful partnership, as Lawson has said, ‘It was as if I’d written a melody, and he [Smith] wrote not just an accompaniment, but an entirely new melody that harmonized with it.’
The picturebook draws on a long tradition of wordless books, from Frans Masereel and Lynd Ward in the 1920s to Shaun Tan and Aaron Becker in the 2000s. As with any purely visual text, there are narrative ‘gaps’ between each image, which the reader must complete to create his or her own version of events. But Smith uses a number of visual ‘clues’, such as colour, line, perspective and composition, to draw us through the story.
The plot centres round a little girl who collects wayside flowers on a walk through a city with her father. It is set in a contemporary urban landscape and begins in austere high-contrast black, white and grey, with the girl’s bright red coat providing the only colour. Yet as the child gathers more flowers and gives them as gifts to various recipients, the volume of colour increases, until finally the book ends in vivid full colour. This infusion of light, bright shades onto the pages highlights the girl’s innocent generosity; by giving away her flowers, she literally brings colour into a grey world.
Within the initial monochrome setting, the use of red for her hooded coat (a hood which, Smith says, allows her a ‘private space’) subtly evokes the fairy tale of Little Red Riding Hood with all its associations of vulnerability in an adult world, although the forest here is actually a concrete jungle. The gradual use of other colours on trees, leaves, grass, birds, dog and other creatures underlines the life-enhancing quality of the natural world, and places a visual emphasis on small and insignificant objects that could otherwise be missed.
Smith painted Footpath Flowers in brush, ink and watercolour, and his line is generally quite loose and fluid. However the larger buildings and a gloomy underpass are drawn in heavier, darker strokes, with strong horizontal and vertical lines, giving them strength, solidity and even an element of threat. The girl, her father and other people en route have long shadows, and Smith – who says he was influenced by the street photography of Europe and New York, especially the long shadows – suggests these can give indications of a character, for instance in the case of the distracted ‘absent’ dad. But as the book progresses, the rigid regular patterns of the man-made struts, railings and brickwork give way to the softer, more irregular, sinuous patterns of the trees and grasses, reinforcing the positive influence of the natural world.
Smith balances single-image pages with spreads that set a particular scene and smaller sets of panels, and the viewpoints within these panels affect the way the reader sees the characters. For instance in one six-panel spread, two are drawn from a bird’s eye viewpoint, which emphasise the girl’s small stature and vulnerability. However in the final panel of the spread we see the child at her level, with a ‘close-up’ on her face and hand, and this close framing invites an emotional connection with her.
Smith also uses scale and perspective to direct our perception. In one spread where the girl puts flowers on a dead bird, the bird is hardly visible in the first panel. However by the fifth panel the dead creature is at the forefront of the picture and it’s the girl and her father who are hardly to be seen. This change of perspective draws the reader’s attention to the bird and allows it, literally, to take centre stage.
The positioning of characters – whether on the far left, centre, or even disappearing off the page, as happens in the penultimate spread – indicates the power relationships between them. This affects our perception of their moods, as do their body stance and language. In addition, the invisible lines of the overall composition draws our eye in a particular direction, whether that is upwards to the sky, or outwards to the far horizon. Towards the end of the book, the diagonal line of the path leading home increases the pace of the story and pulls the reader towards its conclusion.
Although a pre-school child could easily enjoy this book, there is also a dual address. That is, there are additional elements in the images that speak directly to the adult reader. For instance there is clearly a separate narrative around the distracted father that is likely to be understood only by an adult; and there are also several other potential stories around the incidental characters. The close observation of bustling city life and the gentle humour, however, may appeal to both child and adult audiences.
In the final scenes we see the girl and her father returning to the street where they live. The child’s arrival back home gives the book a deeper resonance, as it shows that, far than being ‘alone’ in an impersonal city, she is actually part of a secure loving family. A family that has clearly enabled her to be sufficiently confident and determined to single-mindedly follow her ‘mission’ right through to its conclusion – which is, alone and unobserved after distributing her final flowers to her mother and siblings, to put a single bloom into her own hair. It’s a supremely satisfying end to a tender story of an independent, creative and warm-hearted young girl.
The Roehampton Readers participated in the CILIP Carnegie & Kate Greenway Children’s Book Awards as a shadowing group. Meeting at the University of Roehampton to discuss the shortlists, their reviews were then posted to the shadowing site itself. Over this summer, we are sharing a selection of the reviews with you as part of the ongoing activity here at NCRCL. The Roehampton Readers group was coordinated by NCRCL PhD student, Kay Waddilove.