Tag Archives: Sidewalk Flowers

“The Hobo’s Crowbar was written in the way some of my other collections of poems have been written – mostly emerging out of sound ideas or just ideas that I jot down in my notebook as I think of them”| Q&A with Poet JonArno Lawson


JonArno Lawson’s works has been endeared by both adults and children for it’s wit and whimsy. He has been a winner of numerous awards – including the Governor General’s award in 2015 for the illustrated children’s book Sidewalk Flowers. It was exciting for me to see that Lawson will be release a new collection called The Hobo’s Crowbar in October, 2016 and he answered a few questions about his new work here.


1) The Porcupine’s Quill’s website  is calling The Hobo’s Crowbar a “collection of poems brimming with whimsical wordplay.” How would you describe it? What inspired you (if any) to write it?

The Hobo’s Crowbar  was written in the way some of my other collections of poems have been written – mostly emerging out of sound ideas or just ideas that I jot down in my notebook as I think of them, and then explore or fill out later. There was no central idea, just a pile of poems that seemed large enough to make a book from after a few years! Someone told me years ago that bpNichol worked on many of his projects in a similar way – he had files for different manuscripts where he sorted his ideas and poems, and at a certain point he’d realize something was full enough, or finished enough, to make a book out of (if he was aiming for a book – in his case, it wasn’t always a book!). I liked that model of working, and I’ve tried to use the same method, though I think Nichol was probably more organized than I am.

2) The Hobo’s Crowbar is illustrated with woodcuts by Alec Dempster. (Click here for a link to his website) Was there much planning between the two of you for the book? How long did it take to create the book?

The oldest poems in the collection go back twenty years. But most were written after 2013. Alec showed me his work after he was done – he’s an amazing artist – I had no input as far as his images went. He came for dinner a few months ago, and brought the woodcut for the cover image to show me the actual size – they’re less than half the size of the images you see in the book. Very small. Which is funny, because the paper cuts he did for Down in the Bottom of the Bottom of the Box were larger than the images you see in that book. He’s full of surprises.

3) Will you be planning any sort of book/reading tour for The Hobo’s Crowbar? (Or even a public launch for the book?) If yes, are there events you are excited to be attending?

 I’m going to be reading from The Hobo’s Crowbar at the Fog Lit festival in Saint John’s, New Brunswick, at the end of September. I don’t have anything else lined up, but it would be great to have some kind of launch in Toronto. Porcupine’s Quill is pretty wonderful about promoting their titles, so I’m pretty sure we’ll do something here.

4) You still seem to be keeping busy with Sidewalk Flowers. Do you have many public events upcoming for it? How do you feel about the success of it so far?

Sidewalk Flowers has had a great run. (Click for a link to my review) And it does still seem to be running, in part because the foreign editions are still coming out a few at a time. Right now it seems to be doing well in Germany – I was delighted when someone mentioned the fact I was half-named for German writer Arno Schirokauer in a radio review (on Radio Bremen). Sydney Smith (the illustrator) and I will be going to Ireland in mid-September to take part in the Children’s Books Ireland festival – we’re supposed to talk about our collaborative process at a session there. It seems every time I think nothing else could happen with the book, something else happens! At first it was wonderful, then I started to find it distracting from other work I was trying to do, now I’m just going with the flow – it’s all good. Time passes quickly and it’s silly not to enjoy the good things as they happen. I’m not great with the unexpected – my nature is more to enjoy watching than to enjoy being watched. But we all need some of both.

5) Are you working on anything new right now? If yes, are there details you care to share?

I’m working on a few different things. Mostly I’m working very hard to finish up a book about playing cross-culturally with children. It’s a non-fiction book. I have to have it finished enough for the publisher to start editing it by the end of July, so it’s pretty close now. I’ve been working on this book for ten years! So many interruptions. . .mostly my own. It will come out in 2017 with Wolsak & Wynn (a Hamilton-based publisher). It’s tentatively called “Around the World by TTC”.  I’m also working on a children’s picture book with Montreal artist Nahid Kazemi.  Later in the summer I’m starting on an Arabian Nights sort of story cycle – this is a big project, I have a lot of work (and reading) to do for it, completely different from anything else I’ve done, so it’s making me a little nervous (but exciting to think about too).

6) In the last Q&A (Link to “I like that kids have fewer filters, and they really don’t care about your reputation”) you listed a quite a few of your favourite writers. Have you discovered any new writers since then that you admire?

 Writers I’ve discovered since last time! That’s a good question. . . I’ve become a very big fan of Alison Gopnik. Her books about babies and children are fascinating. She has a book that came out just now called “The Gardener and the Carpenter” – well worth reading. Mark Winston’s “Bee Time” is a great read. “On the Move”, by Oliver Sacks. I’m part way through Siddhartha Mukherjee’s book “The Gene: An Intimate History” – very entertaining. He’s a fine writer.


“There are a lot of people (in the children’s book universe) that just want beautiful books for everyone.” | Q&A with Illustrator Sydney Smith

Scanned cover of "Sidewalk Flowers" Illustrated by Sydney Smith
Scanned cover of “Sidewalk Flowers” Illustrated by Sydney Smith
Illustrations in a book are somewhat important but when a book is created without words, then the illustrations take on a whole new role in a book. Illustrator Sydney Smith found himself in that situation when he drew the artwork for JonArno Lawson’s Sidewalk Flowers. (Link to my review) Smith recently answered a few questions about his experiences.

1) How are you finding the reaction to “Sidewalk Flowers” so far? Has there been any memorable responses to it?

A: The response to Sidewalk Flowers has surpassed all of my expectations. There were moments when I was working on the book that i thought either this could do well or this is total garbage. I think if you have that thought it’s a good sign. It means the work is probably good and that you are taking a risk.
There have been lots of reviews from around the world, some that i have had to Google translate. Its pretty exciting for me. People are seeing my drawings from China to Mexico.
2) How did you like creating the illustrations for “Sidewalk Flowers?” Was bringing JonArno Lawson’s (and his daughter’s) vision to light an easy thing to do? How long did it take for you to create all the illustrations?
A: I loved working on JonArno’s beautiful and poetic story. I moved to Toronto from Halifax when i first started working on the project and that bit of culture shock informed the drawings. It took about six months from the sketches to the finals.
3) Are you working on anything new right now? If so, are there details you care to share?
A: I’m working on a picture book called “The White Cat and the Monk” by Jo Ellen Bogart, I’m illustrating a historical picture book covering the 150 years of Canada, I’ve starting working on a chapter book written by Esta Spalding and I’m working on drawings that will be on the walls of a children’s ward of a Toronto Hospital. I’m busy but really excited about everything I’m doing.
4) How did you get involved in illustrating? Are there illustrators that you admire? If yes, who are they and why do you like their work?
A: I think my early love of books and comics led me to illustrating. I drew a lot when i was younger and when i went to Nova Scotia College of Art and Design I pushed against it at first but I had some great teachers. I remember Dan O’Neill, my printmaking teacher, handing me a pamphlet with the Governor General shortlist of Children’s Illustrators. He said, this could be you. I never forgot that.
I admire lots of illustrators. It’s hard to narrow it down but lately its been the weirder the better. The books I currently have signed out from the library are illustrated by Charles Keeping and John Burmingham. I’m trying to push myself to take more risks but its hard. My hand doesn’t want to obey and in the end we just compromise.
Scanned detail illustration by Sydney Smith as seen in Sidewalk Flowers
Scanned detail illustration by Sydney Smith as seen in Sidewalk Flowers
5) Your work has illustrated books, magazines and various forms of musical recordings. Is there a preferred area of work that you enjoy illustrating for? If yes, why?
A: Children’s books are where I feel most comfortable. For the most part i am left to myself, and there are few limitations other than my own criticizing. With other kinds of illustrations like Music and Editorial you are always representing someone else. And that makes people nervous and the risk of being micromanaged is greater. I don’t respond well to that.
6) Your bio page on your website states that you studied in Nova Scotia but now live in Toronto. How do you – as an illustrator – enjoy living in Toronto? Does that city’s cultural life provide you with any inspiration for your work?
A: Toronto is a completely different pace for me. In Halifax I balanced work out with other activities. Coffee dates, sandwich meetings, beer rendezvous’. But since moving here its more intense. There are long days that sometimes stretch into the next day, and 7 day work weeks.
I love working on Spadina because i have the Lillian Smith library and its children’s books and the Art Gallery on Ontario so close to me. Also China Town is so busy, on nice days, i sit on a bench and draw the traffic during my coffee break.
7) You seem to have an active role on both Facebook and Twitter. How do you like using social media for your work?
A: I don’t know if i have that figured out yet. Tumblr, and Twitter seems to only work if you are consistent and I’m not. I don’t think i will fail in life if i never figure out how to tweet but i can understand how its a good method of reaching an audience. I have a hard time believing anyone wants to hear me talking about my brunch. Maybe i should stop tweeting about my brunch.
8) I know most writers get to go out on book tours for their works, but do you get to attend functions for any of the books that you have published? If yes, what was that experience like for you? If no, is it something that you would like to do?
A: Oh yes. Book tours are fun but they don’t happen for every book. I had the privilege of touring with Sheree Fitch when i illustrated her books. I learned a lot from her. Like don’t sign your name on a child’s forehead even if they ask.
Sidewalk Flowers was launched in Halifax which meant so much to me. There were a lot of people there including my family and friends; some of whom i haven’t seen in years. I teared up when i gave my speech.
The illustrators of children’s books get more attention than illustrators of other media. I’m just starting to realize how vast the children’s book universe is. There are a lot of people in it that just want beautiful books for everyone. There are no agendas, no scams, just a lot of people making beautiful books that inspire, move, excite, humor, and offer escape.


Enlightenment without Words | Review of “Sidewalk Flowers” by JonArno Lawson and Sydney Smith (2015) Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press

Groundwood Logos Spine

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.

Scanned image from “Sidewalk Flowers” by JonArno Lawson and Sydney Smith (2015) Groundwood Books

“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.

Scan image from
Scanned image from “Sidewalk Flowers” by JonArno Lawson and Sydney Smith (2015) Groundwood Books

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.

Scanned image from
Scanned image from “Sidewalk Flowers” by JonArno Lawson and Sydney Smith (2015) Groundwood Books

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.


Link to JonArno Lawson’s blog

Link to Sydney Smith’s website

Link to House of Anansi Press page for Sidewalk Flowers

“I like that kids have fewer filters, and they really don’t care about your reputation” | Q&A with poet/writer JonArno Lawson

I admire writers who can appeal to different audiences. JonArno Lawson is one such writer. He has written for both adults and children with a zeal that is infectious that anybody would want to continue to read more of his work. Lawson recently answered a few questions for me.
1) It has been a while since “Enjoy It While It Hurts” has been released. How was it received by the reading public? Any memorable events you care to share?
I’ve read from “Enjoy it while it hurts” 5 or 6 times now – the launch was a lot of fun, the audience was very nice. Same thing when I read from it in Hamilton a few months later, and in Picton last year too – a very nice audience.  I just read from the book last week, a few times, when I was in Nova Scotia – a poem called “My bum”, which was taken from a comment made by my youngest son (he told me he published his bum a few years ago, after I told him I’d published a book) nearly always gets a laugh. Sometimes the aphorisms go flat, but most of the time people seem to like them, or at least some of them. It’s a varied group of poems in that book, more like a bunch of different books mixed together – so I have to see what the audience is like (who’s there, and what the mood is), and then try to choose accordingly. You never know till you’re there! And even then. . .
2) You have written for both adults and children. Is there a preferred audience you enjoy writing for? If yes, why?
I try to write things that both adults and children can understand at first reading (or hearing). I like that kids have fewer filters, and they really don’t care about your reputation (it doesn’t mean anything to them, whether you have one or not, or if you do have one, what it is). In that sense, it’s fun to write for kids because you’re usually getting a more direct response – direct to the work. On the other hand, adults sometimes have more subtle and complicated associations and interpretations, so I like that too.
3) Who are your favourite writers? What are you reading right now?
I have so many favourite writers! But I’ll take up the challenge and make a list. In no particular order (and I know I’m probably forgetting some essentials here) –  I like Michael Joseph, bpNichol, Idries Shah, Thomas King, Tahir Shah, Isabelle Knockwood, Amina Shah, Robert Ornstein, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, Charles Fernyhough, Saira Shah, Chris Stringer, Safia Shah, Sue Goyette, Arthur Deikman, David Pendlebury, Erin Moure, Ted Hughes, Doris Lessing,  Robert Twigger, Robert Graves, Laura Riding, Mina Loy, Adrienne Rich, Saki, Thomas McGrath, Zbigniew Herbert, Miroslav Holub, Vasko Popa, Yehuda Amichai, Mourid Barghouti, Jaan Kross, Sergei Dovlatov, Mikhail Zoshchenko, Timothy Findley, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Neal Ascherson, Kristin Cashore, Lenore Look, Jack Gantos, Edward T. Hall, Helen Waddell, Claudio Magris, Gertrude Stein, Avi, Kevin Henkes, William Carlos Williams, Ogden Nash, Christine Baldacchino, William Steig, Jeanne Steig, Carol Ann Duffy, Roberto Bolano, Nadezhda Mandelstam, Primo Levi, Fazil Iskander, Jim Copp and Ed Brown, Jackie Kay, Sheldon Harnick, Stephen Sondheim, Jacob Burckhardt, Yip Harburg, Italo Calvino, Mario Rigoni Stern, Muriel Rukeyser, X.J. Kennedy, Theodore Roethke, Stefan Andres, Tarjei Vesaas, Sebastian Haffner, David Jones, Rudyard Kipling, Jorge Luis Borges, Michael Heyman, Hakim Sanai, Pu Songling, Robert Louis Stevenson, Marilyn Singer, Marilyn Nelson, Kenneth Grahame, Shota Rustaveli, Bidpai, Ramsay Wood, Goethe, Mary Ann Hoberman, Imre Kertesz, Stendhal, Dennis Lee, Joseph T. Thomas, Jr., Philip de Vos, Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Andrei Bitov, Jack London, Sebastian Hope, Tarquin Hall, X.J. Kennedy, Jason Webster, Lissa Paul, Dr. Seuss, Jason Elliott, Robert Frost, Jeff Smith, Dav Pilkey, Mo Willems, J.K. Rowling, Ingmar Bergman, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Audre Lorde, Marguerite Duras, Christabel Bielenberg, Emannuel Ringelblum, Hermann Langbein, Mervyn Wall, Xenophon, Fulke Greville, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Henri Bortoft, Jacqueline Woodson, Philip Nel, George Mackay Brown, James Aldridge, Plato, Henry Green, Denise Nessel, Maurice Sendak, Beatrix Potter, Tomi Ungerer, Ursula Nordstrum, Andrei Platonov. . .I feel badly, because I know I’m forgetting a lot. . .but these are all authors whose books I’ve returned to over and over again.
Right now I’m reading “The Secret Garden” by Mahmud Shabistari. Last week I was reading “Song of Rita Joe: autobiography of a Mi’kmaq poet”.
4) I have seen that you have participated in several public readings of your work. How did you enjoy those experiences? Have any of your works been the subject of any book clubs or reading circles? If yes, did you participate with those groups?
I’m not much of a public reader – I’d like to be better at it. I heard some great podcasts that Atul Gawande made recently – now there’s some great public reading! The experiences I’ve had haven’t been bad – I’ve only faced kind audiences so far, but I’m happier to stay home. As far as I know, my books haven’t been used in book clubs or reading circles, but some have been studied by primary school and university classes. Just last week I spoke to a class at Acadia (in Wolfville) that had studied some of my books, and it was a very nice experience. I also spoke to a primary school group that had read one of my books (near Wolfville) and they kept me busy with questions for over an hour.
5) Are you working on anything new right now? If yes, can you share details? Could you also give a bit of a description of “Sidewalk Flowers?” 
I’m working on another wordless book, which I’ll be collaborating on with Sydney Smith again. I’m not exactly sure of the scenario yet, so I can’t tell you too much (I can picture a lot of it, but don’t have a firm sequence at this point). I’m hoping it will take place next to the sea, but we’ll see. . .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.
6) You seem to have a bit of a presence on Facebook and a site on Blogger. How do you like using those platforms as writer? Is it a good means of keeping in touch with your fans?
I joined Facebook this fall, after steering clear for years. I had to join because it’s how my son’s grade one teacher communicates about what his class is doing. I actually really like now how it allows me organize reviews, and it’s put me back in touch with relatives who live far away, and old friends (and some new friends!) – I like that. My daughter helped set up a webpage for me, and she also set up a twitter account for me this week. I guess as long as I keep it to five or ten minutes a day (but do I have the discipline?) it’s a good thing. It’s an easy way of staying in touch (and getting in touch) with people, which seems all to the good.
7) Many of your online bios talk about a connection with novelist Timothy Findley. Did you have a special bond with him in getting you started in writing?
He was very good to me. I sent him a chapbook of my work almost twenty years ago, and he really liked it. He connected me to a publisher right away, and offered a blurb for the back of any future book I might publish, and included a poem from that chapbook as an epigraph to his novel Pilgrim. One of the nicest things he did was take my wife and I out for a celebratory lunch at the Four Seasons!  Months before I’d even published anything – he just wanted to celebrate the poems. Bill Whitehead, his partner, was very kind too. That was a very happy way to start out as a writer. . .I loved his novels, so it meant a lot.
8) How do you like living in Toronto? Does the city offer you enough inspiration for your writing?
I’ve gotten used to Toronto. It’s home now. I’m from Dundas, Ontario, originally. It took me a while to find my way here – the pace and size were a bit beyond me for the first decade. . but now I wouldn’t want to live, permanently, anywhere else. I’m easily seduced by other cities, though. I love Montreal, and Miami, and I was just in Halifax – such a pretty city, it had a great feel. So does the town of Wolfville, where Acadia is. In some ways, the great thing about Toronto is that it isn’t seductive. As a writer, maybe it’s better to live in a place that isn’t constantly drawing you outside to look at it. We’re lucky to be able to see great sunsets and sunrises from our house – that makes me happy. But taken as a whole, architecturally, Toronto is a phenomenally ugly city.  On the other hand, it’s filled with amazing people from every corner of the world, and more and more are arriving all the time. To me, that’s the greatest thing about it.
9) Do you have any advice for any want-to-be writers?
Write write write! Or think think think, and then write write write. Or – stop all that thinking and just write, because you may not know what you’re thinking until you write it. Be hard on your work, not yourself – there’s a difference – but don’t be too hard on your work- write first, and then edit. Don’t edit what you might write out of existence by not writing it – and go out and submit things, anywhere and everywhere – I avoided submitting for ages out of fear and over-sensitivity. Don’t worry about being criticized – it’s all useful, whether you agree with it or not. Never assume what you’re doing is useless or stupid – that’s a common trap.  Stay optimistic! Read books about how to stay optimistic. Keep going!