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Jon Arno Lawson

A Day for Sandcastles

Jon Arno Lawson is a Canadian writer who has published many books for children and adults; he was born in Hamilton, Ontario and raised in nearby Dundas. He now lives in Toronto,

Lawson has won The Lion and the Unicorn  Award for Excellence in North American Poetry four times in 2007, 2009, 2013, and 2014. The books were Enjoy It While It HurtsA Voweller’s BestiaryBlack Stars In A White Night Sky, and Down In The Bottom Of The Bottom Of The Box.] His book The Man In The Moon-Fixer’s Mask was a finalist for this award in 2005.

Lawson’s wordless picture book “Sidewalk Flowers”(Footpath Flowers in the UK)  illustrated by Sydney Smith,  won the Governor General’s Award for Illustrated Children’s Books in 2015. This was followed by a further wordless book, Above the Shop, illustrated by Qin Leng and, more recently, A Day for Sandcastles.

Jon joined Nikki Gamble In the Reading Corner to discuss the latest book.

About A Day for Sandcastles.
A dazzling wordless picture book celebrates creative problem-solving, teamwork, and the sun-splashed wonder of a day at the beach. The creators of the acclaimed Over the Shop evoke a perfect summer beach day – and themes of creativity, cooperation, flexibility, and persistence – all without a word in this sun-warmed, salt-stained delight of a story. A busload of beachgoers spills out onto the sand for a day of fun and frolic.

Three siblings begin work on a castle, patting and shaping the sand as the sun arcs over the sky. Time and again, their progress is halted: a windswept hat topples their creation; a toddler ambles through it; the tide creeps close, and then too close. Meeting each demolition with fresh determination, the builders outdo themselves time and again, until the moment arrives to pile back into the bus for home.

An authentic portrait of sibling cooperation – and glorious inspiration for creative people of all ages – A Day for Sandcastles channels the thrill of surrendering expectations on the path to infinite possibility.

Interview Transcript

Nikki Gamble:

Welcome into the reading corner today, John Arno Lawson, who is a poet and children’s picture book creator. He’s a four times winner of the Lion and Unicorn Award for his poetry, and in the UK we know his work more for the wordless picture books that he’s created, in partnership with Sydney Smith and also Qin Leng, Footpath Flowers, Over the Shop and A Day for Sandcastles.

I’d like to start, by asking if you could tell us a little bit about each of those books.

Jon Arno Lawson:

All three are autobiographical, especially the first and the most recent. And all three came to me as visual ideas.

I never wanted to have words which is quite different for me. I almost always work with words, but in each case, the idea came visually and so I worked with that.

Nikki Gamble:

I also could see a big connection between the first book, Footpath Flowers, and A Day for Sandcastles, because they feel like very personal parent-child experiences.

I hadn’t picked up that the second book that Over the Shop, was also an autobiographical book. I wonder if you can tell us a little bit more about that because it’s one that perhaps has been interpreted in so many different ways. Some people see it as an anti-racist book; some people pick up on the L G B T Q Rainbow Flag.

Tell us a little bit more about that.

Jon Arno Lawson:

footpath flowers and a day for sandcastles, they’re based on my family. Over the shop was more of when I was at university when I studied in Montreal and there was a shop at the corner of San Laurent Avenue and Pine Avenue that was very rundown. You could see that the second floor was all boarded up. It was a very pretty, old building. And I thought I wonder if I offer to fix it up, they would let me live there rent-free. And I thought about it a lot. Now I would just do it, but I was young then and I was too shy. So I had the idea but didn’t know what to do with it. But the idea stuck with me. Something I kept thinking about.

I still visit Montreal. The funny thing is in the meantime, it has been renovated beautifully and you can see people are living upstairs now, so it was more autobiographical in terms of a fantasy of something I wanted to do and then it became the story, and my eldest child is trans. So I felt strongly too about doing a story for little people that would bring that world closer to home.

Nikki Gamble:

You can’t get to be more of a words person than being a poet. So it feels almost oppositional to be writing a story that has no words in it. And the other thing that really struck me is that you are working with an illustrator and some people might think, what’s the writer’s role in this? Isn’t the illustrator doing all the work? So, I’d love to know a little bit more about what it is that you do and give to your publisher or to the illustrator that it’s this collaborative endeavour.

Jon Arno Lawson:

It’s a good question. It made it very difficult to sell, especially the first book because, it was very hard to say, okay, I’m the writer. I have a script, but nothing I do will show in the final book.

The way it worked was I had a little book that I sketched basically what I wanted on each page so that the publisher and ultimately the illustrator could look at it and see what it was I was picturing. I don’t draw that well, but it was something they could look at. But then I also described what I wanted on each page.

So, with Footpath Flowers, I knew I wanted very little colour at the beginning and that the colour would build through the book. And I knew I wanted certain settings in Toronto because it was an actual walk I was taking home. And so I knew certain settings that were very important. There was an embankment that my eldest child scrambled up to get a flower.

And then, the illustrator, they have a very set narrative to work with and even visual cues. But then they have a lot of freedom to interpret and to add their own piece. Say in A day for Sandcastles Qin included her family at the beach. I wasn’t even aware of it, but she had the freedom to do that, which is lovely, and then so it becomes very much both of our books.

Nikki Gamble:

And she works in film, doesn’t she?

Jon Arno Lawson:

Yeah, she does animation as well. And it’s so fortunate because she understood the whole sort of storyboard idea, probably better. For sure. Better than I do. And she was able to draw in a way that was very flowing.

Nikki Gamble:

She’s used to drawing many pictures with the same characters over and over. So in a way, the process that you’ve described there is a little like writing a screenplay, you get the bones of it. But what’s interesting to me is that you are putting visuals in there because you’re talking about colour.

With the latest book A Day Out for Sandcastles, did you include quite a lot of visual direction as well as narrative direction for that as well?

Jon Arno Lawson:

I think Qin had more freedom than say with Footpath Flowers.  Because with Footpath Flowers, I knew I wanted Toronto and certain places in Toronto,. A Day for Sandcastles in my mind took place on a beach in Virginia.

But Qin had just been to Cape Cod with her family. I’m sure the beaches are quite similar, but there were still things that were important. But how she did them wasn’t as it was in my mind.

Nikki Gamble:

One of the other things that seemed to me to run through all three books was about children being greater ‘noticers’ or more aware of their environment than the adults.

So that’s, is that an important idea for you?

Jon Arno Lawson: Yeah, I think. Until I had children, I hadn’t really spent much time with them, and I noticed that I was noticing the world in a completely different way through their eyes and language. It completely changed everything I was doing because I saw everything new through them.

A Day for Sandcastles came about because I wanted them not to build their sandcastle on the edge of the waves in real life. I wanted them to build it back, safely back from the water. And they would build this perfect thing.

I couldn’t understand why they were doing it right in this place where the waves kept hitting it. But it’s that kind of thing. And that’s symbolic. That’s actually more like real life, where you’re constantly trying to rebuild, and you don’t know what the day’s going to bring.

And so it has been that sort of thing as a parent now my youngest is 13, I don’t know what I’m going to do for ideas. I’m going to have to maybe start writing for adults. I don’t know.

Nikki Gamble:

Are you still writing poetry alongside the wordless books?

Jon Arno Lawson

Yeah, just not as, as much as I used to.

I do have a collection now that I’ll try to do something with, but it took almost 10 years.

Nikki Gamble:

Whereas you’ve found then something new that is working for you.

At the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, back in March, they had an exhibition called the Silent Book Exhibition, basically about promoting new wordless books.

All terms are imperfect, but Wordless books do have words in them. For one thing. If nothing else, they have a title, and the title, to some extent, tells you how to. read the book; it would be very different if you had no title at all. I’m thinking about Above the Shop. It has the name of the shop, and that name changes through the story, so it’s not completely wordless.

Silent Books is this term that has been found to try and get closer to a description of the form. But, as I’ve been reading them, I don’t find them silent. I wanted to ask you whether you hear sounds when you’re writing them and when you’re reading them.

Jon Arno Lawson:

That’s an interesting question.

It’s a fascinating thing too, what you’re saying about the shop sign because that was Qin’s addition. I was not sure about having that because I felt like it did introduce a word. But I was so happy she did.

There’s a little kid I know who loves the book, and she calls it the grandparent Lowell. And so, although there’s just that one word, she hangs on that word, and it’s very useful for her, and it has some significance for Qin.

But in terms of whether I hear sound, that’s something different. With Footpath, Flowers in real life, my child was singing on the way home, so there’s sound to the memory.

But reading the books, they are silent in my head. For instance, in A Day for Sandcastles, you can see the wind in the kids’ hairs and hair, but for me, they are silent in an audio way.

Nikki Gamble:

And yet there’s a bit, for instance, where the father comes and points back up the beach. I don’t know if at that point he’s telling them to come and have lunch or why not build the sandcastle further back. From my perspective, you hear some words at that point.

It’s not quite silent for me.

Jon Arno Lawson:

You’re right. Once you have a title just a couple of words tell you something.

About how to read. And that just reminded me of Footpath Flowers; there were many different editions in different languages. So, the title changed even, within English, from Sidewalk Flowers to Footpath Flowers. But I was showing there’s a local store owned by a Chinese family, and I was sent a Chinese edition of the book, and I brought it to them because I thought they’d find it interesting. And the woman looked at the title, and she said, who chose the title? Like she looked shocked. And I said, oh, it’s just Sidewalk Flowers. She said it says Flowers of the Street, which, where I come from, means sex worker. So that might have been a regional use, but she really couldn’t believe that.

That was the title of the book. And it would change how you read it. Of course.

Nikki Gamble:

Let’s talk a little bit more about A Day for Sandcastles.  You’ve explained a little bit about the script you give to Qin.

What else did you want to convey to her with this story? Was it as specific as each of the narrative elements? For instance, the castle is destroyed several times. I love the one where the baby starts to walk through it, and everybody’s saying, ‘No, don’t do it’. They’ve made this gorgeous creation with all the turrets and everything. Were you that specific to the different things that we’re going to jeopardise this castle?

Jon Arno Lawson:

Yeah, so in the different scenarios of the things that would happen, which I think were mostly from life.  I like the idea let’s say the baby runs through the castle, and it looks like a setback, but then maybe something about the baby’s footprints actually ends up being useful.

I wanted to convey that as well, that the things that happen on the beach or the things that the waves are throwing up are things that can end up being incorporated.

Nikki Gamble:

Yeah, and they go off, and they find lots of beautiful things to decorate their castle with. I also love the way that Qin has shown, those time sequences, which probably come from animation, showing that time is passing really subtly.

As that castle gets closer and closer to the parents sitting in the chair, I thought that was very beautifully done. Were there any surprises when the work came back to you?

No, we were very lucky. Qin produces so much beautiful material.

So I think maybe the first time it was even more a question of how not to keep everything, how to hone it down because she had so many great ideas. There were no bad surprises at all.

Maybe the most surprising thing was how beautiful the endpapers are It gives you the sense of this hot beach day, but then that beautiful perfect ending where everything darkens and you see the bus on the embankment.

Nikki Gamble:

I think the final spread is the castle on the deserted beach desert in the twilight. And that just evokes in me as a reader a question about what happens in that castle when there are no longer any people there. That somehow is magical because it’s still there. And anything could be happening in this castle. We won’t know because we’ve left the beach. And it’s still there. That’s magic.

Jon Arno Lawson:

And in some way, it’s symbolic too of making a book. You’ve created it, and now it’s done, and you don’t know what’s going to happen with it; who’s going to read it; what the fate of the story will be.

Nikki Gamble:

So your children have inspired these wordless books in one way or another. They’re older now than the children in the books themselves, but how have they responded to the stories?

Jon Arno Lawson:

I think they get a kick out of it. It’s like little pieces of their lives. Day for sandcastles was actually written way back when, around the time it happened. So it’s quite long ago for them. But I think they enjoy seeing, these little pieces of their lives living on in, in a different way.

Nikki Gamble: And I expect it generates a lot of memory, conversation, and thinking together about those experiences.

I know that’s a sort of obvious thing to say, but I suppose I’m reaching for the idea that, again, the book isn’t ever silent the minute you have somebody reading it.

Jon Arno Lawson:

This was so true, too, in terms of presenting the books.  I never thought about it when I first wrote a silent book; how will I use it?

I was used to doing workshops and presentations that were all word-based, and then when I realised I was going to have to go out and do something like this, I didn’t know what to expect. As you say, it’s then very word-based. You know what you end up doing with kids with this. Even telling them this is where it comes from in my life, but what do you see happening here? It’s fantastic for verbal literacy.

There was another book I did that was supposed to be wordless, called Over the Rooftops Under the Moon, and Claudia Bedrick, the publisher, very late in the process, said she decided she wanted it to have words. We’d been working on it for so long; I felt very resistant to it. But I also felt we’ve just got to get this done, and if she wants words, let’s try anyway. It was fascinating because I then wrote words as though I had never seen my original script based on the illustrations of Nahid Kazemi, the new words came out really well, and Nahid said, oh, if I’d known those were going to be the words, I would have done completely different pictures. It was like the Telephone Game. In the end, it worked. I think there are a few things maybe I would do differently with that one. I think Naheed probably felt the same way.

Nikki Gamble:

That’s fascinating. I wonder what she meant by would have done them differently.

Jon Arno Lawson:

I don’t know. that’s the funny thing. It could have gone on and on. She could have done another set of pictures and I would’ve said, those aren’t the words I would’ve put for those pictures.

Nikki Gamble:

But I suppose that also leads to another point: that most wordless or silent books, whatever we call them, are created by one mind.

Jon Arno Lawson: I really didn’t know what to anticipate when this all started. Sheila Berry, who was our editor at Groundwood, was the one who came up with the idea. She said you can’t draw it. I would’ve loved to do the art myself, but she saved me from myself. Although ultimately, I would still love to illustrate my own work.

Nikki Gamble:

Maybe that’s next.

Jon Arno Lawson:

Maybe in 10 years, I’ll have to keep working.

Nikki Gamble:

Thank you so much for joining me In the Reading Corner and giving me a bit more of an insight into how the wordless book works from the writer’s perspective.

It’s been fascinating talking to you.

Jon Arno Lawson:

Thank you so much, so nice to talk with you.

Caroline Bradley: in the Reading Corner is presented by Nikki Gamble and produced by Alison Hughes. This episode is generously sponsored by Walker Books. If you have enjoyed this podcast, please leave us a review. If you would like to find out about other events and courses, visit just imagine.co.uk.

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