We have all made mistakes in our past, and we all have had to make difficult decisions because of those mistakes. But in many cases, those decisions can lead us to uplifting and interesting paths in our lives and define us in better ways. That is the story JonArno Lawson tells in his book Uncle Holland and with the illustrations by Natalie Nelson, the book is a delightful and unique exploration of an important aspect of the human condition.
Palmer and Ella had three sons – Holland, Jimmy and Ivan. Jimmy and Ivan were good boys, but Holland, who was the eldest, was always getting into trouble.
Holland sometimes stole things. He like stuff that was pretty, and sometimes he couldn’t help stuffing that pretty stuff into his pockets.
One day, when the police had caught Holland for the thirty-seventh time, they said, “Holland Lawson, either you go to jail or you join the army. It’s up to you.”
JonArno Lawson has a magical way of incorporating whimsy into his words. And this story is no different except that it includes a story moral lesson in it. JonArno has taken the story of his Uncle Holland and shared it with us readers, giving us – no matter what age group we belong to – a unique lesson to learn.
Natalie Nelson’s illustrations for this book are stark and bold. They truly not only visually tell the story of Uncle Holland but also help create empathy for Uncle Holland’s family members. Nelson use’s colours just at the right moment for emphasis, giving the story the ‘right punch’ when it was needed.
Uncle Holland by JonArno Lawson and illustrated by Natalie Nelson is certainly a unique story filled with whimsy and an important life lesson. Stark illustrations that punctuate the story with perfect colours at the right moment add to the plot and make this book an enjoyable read.
Sydney Smith is a very busy illustrator and a very dedicated one. Since the release of “Sidewalk Flowers” a few years ago, he has enchanted book-fans young and young-at-heart with his work. Now in 2017, he has a couple of new releases coming out and he took a few moments to answer a few questions for me about those works.
1) First off, could you give a bit of an outline for “Town Is by the Sea?”
“Town Is by the Sea” is a picture book written by Joanne Schwartz, published by Groundwood Books and illustrated by me! The story is a day in the life of a boy who lives in a mining town by the sea. As he describes his day he reflects on the sea and his father who is working below it in the mine. There is a beautiful rhythm to Joanne’s text and there is plenty of room for the illustrations to play.
2) Am I right in assuming that you hailing from Nova Scotia that working on this book would have a special meaning for you?
Both Joanne and I come from Nova Scotia. I have been wanting to work on something about home for a while, especially since moving to Toronto. I miss so much about the east coast and this book gave me the opportunity go back and bask in all of the things that make my home so unique and special.
3) How long did it take you to create the illustrations for “Town Is by the Sea?” How did you get involved in illustrating it?
Sheila Barry, the wonderful editor from Groundwood Books brought the story to my attention two years ago. I had a lot on my plate at the time but I was so excited about the project that I started thinking about it far in advance of working on it. My process is never efficient and I can get lost down rabbit holes so I ended up with a lot of versions of each image. If I felt like something wasn’t working so I wouldn’t sleep until I took another swing at it.
4) I know many people living here in Ontario who have originated from Atlantic Canada are always eager to explain to their children what life is like on the eastern region of the country. Is that something you are hoping this book will aid in doing?
What I like about this story is that you could say it’s about growing up in the late ’50’s in a mining town in Cape Breton but you could also say its just about being young. The writing captures this and I wanted the illustrations to do the same thing. Relatively few people know what its like to grow up in a mining town but if you can show personal and human moments that we all share than it doesn’t matter where or when the story takes place. Everyone shares the same type of moments through time. Looking at your own reflection in a puddle, looking at dust in a beam of sunlight, hearing the wind in the trees. Putting poetic details of personal yet universal moments in a story makes it relatable no matter how foreign the setting is. Boiled down it is a story about a human, beautiful and complicated.
5) “Sidewalk Flowers” was a very popular book in my circle of readers. Are there any noticeable similarities/differences you found on working on the two books?
I think there are a lot of similarities. There is a depth to the main character. A quietness and a seriousness. This book is kind of heavier than “Sidewalk Flowers.” I showed the story to a group at a workshop recently and when I finished there was a moment of silence. I hope just meant that there was a lot to take in.
6) I know it is a bit of time before the release of “Town Is by the Sea” but is there a book tour being planned for it?
There is a book launch planned for mid-March in Halifax and there will also be a release in Toronto around the same time. I’d be happy to go anywhere people are interested with this book. I’m really excited to share it.
I’m still useless at social media. That hasn’t changed. I’m always happy to hear from any fans out there. It makes me feel good and lifts me up when people tell me they like my work. I think one of the hazards of working by yourself is that you can lose sight of whether the work is reaching people or if its any good at all. On the really dark days I just go for a walk to the (Art Gallery of Ontario) or to Allen Gardens. Try to surround myself with beauty. Sometimes it takes some time for me get back to people and sometimes i don’t see their messages because Facebook hides them on me. Oops. Sorry about that.
8) You have been busy with a few items since our last conversation. Are you working on anything new right now? If yes, are there details you care to share?
I am finishing up illustrating my last book before I take some time to focus on some of my own projects that have been waiting patiently for the past few years. I can’t really say too much about those personal projects because they are still being chiseled and shaped. But I am excited. I love collaborating with other people, and I’m sure I will work with other writers again soon but i need to see this through right now.
The book I am finishing up is called “Smoot,” written by Michelle Cuervas, published by Dial Books and its a very fun story about a boy and his shadow, Smoot, who decides to separate and have an adventure of his own. I really like this story and working with Lauri Hornik and Lily Malcolm from Dial is such a pleasure. (Link to Penguin Random House Canada’s website for “Smoot”)
Since I have been asked to give my opinion about childrens’ books, I have been impressed with the details, the planning and the design that goes into what appears at first a simple item. And that is what I found interesting about Paul Covello’s Canada ABC book too. But as I flipped through the book, I found myself thinking that there may be another use for his book as Canada prepares to celebrate it’s 150th year since Confederation in 2017.
Covello has a great book here. He documents every letter from A to ‘Zed’ with unique Canadian concepts and icons. The images at first appear to be simple. (For example – A setting with three or four animals). But then one looks at the pictures and realized there is a bit of hidden detail here. (A collection of leaves, a grove of trees which use geometric shapes, colours that compliment each other and so forth.) The joy of this book is not just looking at the definitions and the images that are here, but to look at the details and – if one is sharing with others – discuss the details of each of the images.
While this may be a book for little minds, I believe that I will be giving copies of this book out to visitors to Canada who come to see me during the celebrations of our country next year. The simple concept would help people whose English skills may be limited still understand the concepts of what makes up Canada today. And the brightly illustrated pages are more unique than any tacky souvenir that is available for purchase.
Paul Covello’s Canada ABC may appear to be a simple book, but it is a unique discussion piece when one gives a few careful moments to look it over. It is a perfect gift for so many people as Canada prepares to celebrate it’s 150 anniversary since Confederation.
For many of us, (And especially for those of us who must engage the world in a digital manner) illustrations are something we glance over and pass by. But in many cases, illustrators are people whose skill and craft adds a complex dimension to a book for readers to enjoy. Thao Lam is a illustrator whose ideas come through in careful planning and detail. She recently answered a few questions for me about her work.
1) How long did it take you to create “Skunk On A String?” Was there anything specific that inspired you to create the book?
It took me one year to complete Skunk On A String. This includes storyboarding and illustration. But it took me nearly a decade to figure out how to get the skunk down from the balloon. Many years ago while I was in the shower, an image of a skunk tied to a balloon popped in my head. I never proceeded with the story because I couldn’t figure out how to get the skunk down from the balloon. Over the years I thought of many scenarios, like having the skunk rescued by an astronaut because he made it to the moon via balloon, but all those scenarios were too far fetch.
2) Where did you find your materials to create ‘Skunk On A String?’ Any idea on how many pieces of paper it took to create the complete book?
I lost track of how many pieces of paper were used in the making of Skunk On A String – too many to count! The assortments of paper came from papers I collected over the years; The Paper Place in Toronto; art stores around the city, and I order a lot of stuff from www.scrapbook.com
3) How has been the reaction to ‘Skunk On A String?’ Has there been any memorable experiences you care to share because of the book?
So far the reaction to the book has been really positive. The trailer for book has hit an all time high for Owlkids Books https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S781wbPaQ_k. It’s received great reviews and even a star from Kirkus. Since Skunk On A String is my first book, every moment has been memorable. I think my favorite moment was spotting copies of Skunk On A String at my favorite children’s book store, Mabel’s Fables. I have been going to this book store for years and would spend hours at the store browsing for inspiration and discovering amazing books, authors, and illustrators. It blew my mind to see my book in print along with those I admire.
4) What inspired you to go into illustration? Who are some of your fellow illustrators that you admire?
As a kid I would spend hours in the children’s section of the library pouring over books — something I still do as an adult. The idea that you get to spend your day drawing and being creative was mind blowing so there was never any doubt in what I wanted to do when I grew up.
Illustrators I admire: Jon Klassen, David Wiesner, and Isabelle Arsenault are my top picks if I were to get stranded on a desert island.
5) Do you do many public events in relation to your work? If yes, is that something you enjoy doing?
I totally enjoy doing public events (though I still get stage fright each time). Skunk On A String has opened many opportunities and has introduced me to many folks in the industry as well as book fans. For example I got the opportunity to talk to some librarians and teachers at the Ontario Library Association Super Conference (OLA), which was great because I learned a lot about reading a wordless picture book to an audience. I am a big wordless picture book fan and have quite a collection of them but I have never shared one with an audience before so the advice I got from the OLA came in handy when I did my first reading. I especially like doing school visits, seeing kids get excited over books makes me smile!
6) You seem to be active on social-media platforms like Facebook and Twitter? How do you like using those apps. in relation to your work?
I am not really good at posting and tweeting, I have to keep reminding myself to be social. I find it especially hard to do while I am working but I guess posting and tweeting is working, just the marketing side of work (I prefer the creative side of work).
7) You talk on your website about your love of children’s books. What are some of your favourite books?
Oh, that would be a long list! Currently “Dear Mr. Blueberry” written and illustrated by Simon James, the “Gerald and Piggie” series written and illustrated by Mo Willems, “The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend” written and illustrated by Dan Santat, and “The Day the Crayons Quit” written by Drew Daywalt and illustrated by Oliver Jeffers are read on a continues loop in our household.
8) Have you given any thought into creating another book? If yes, are there details you care to share about it?
I am working on a second book with Owlkids Books. It is about making friends something I had a really hard time doing when I was a kid because I was shy and didn’t have confidence. The launch date is set for Spring 2018.
9) Your biographies list you as living in Toronto? How do you like living there? Are there items in Toronto that inspire you as an illustrator?
Toronto is so vibrant! There is so much diversity, culture, arts that something is always happening all year long. It is hard not to be inspired when there is so much going on. For inspiration I usually head to my favorite bookstores like Mabel’s Fables, Little Island Comics, or I just visit my local library. There are also great book festivals throughout the year, my favorite is the Toronto Comic Arts Festival. The organizers do an amazing job every year, it just gets bigger and bigger and the list of featured guests is stellar, so much inspiration under one roof and it is free to attend.
It is difficult to imagine a poet bringing a story to life without words. And it hard for us adults to imagine being moved by such a story in a book form. But JonArno Lawson and Sydney Smith have created such a book with Sidewalk Flowers. In it, they remind us how the world appears through the eyes of a child which is something we adults have forgotten and need to learn again.
“Sidewalk Flowers is about a walk I took with my daughter through Toronto, seven years ago, as we headed home to my wife and two little sons. It’s about how she found flowers, and then gave them away very unselfconsciously,” JonArno Lawson told me in a Q&A recently and left it to that. (Link to that Q&A here) But both he and Sydney Smith have crafted a much deeper narrative with this book. We follow a little girl and her father on a walk through a black-and-white urban landscape. As we follow them, items in the little girl’s vision come to colour; her red coat, fruits in a seller’s stand, a vibrant pattern in a passerby’s dress, and so on. Eventually what comes to the forefront are sidewalk flowers she busily picks while her father is absorbed in more worldly and mundane matters.
As we follow their journey further, other items come into the little girl’s vision; a dead bird, someone sleeping on a bench, etc. She deposits each one of her flowers on each of her observations, bringing attention and a little innocent joy to the world around her. Even as she takes her father’s hand as they walk in through a park, she deposits a few of her flowers, adding colour to the world.
While catalogued as a children’s book, Sidewalk Flowers by JonArno Lawson and Sydney Smith provides a wordless message to both the young and old. A great read and a great item to ponder upon afterwards.