the playgrounds of babel coverThe Playgrounds of Babel by JonArno Lawson Illustrated by Piet Grobler

Groundwood Books, 2019. Hardcover Picture Book, 32 pp.

I wasn’t sure how I would like this one…but it was on the lists and I love Lawson’s Sidewalk Flowers. I think it’s message of finding expressions familiar to us as humans that will transcend any differences like language is a primary reason it’s on the lists. Lovers of how story works will also love this picture book.

The story is of two boys on a playground overhearing an old woman tell a story of Babel, a story some are familiar with from the book of Genesis in the Bible. Hers includes a dragon, summoned by God to destroy the tower while God reassigns multiple languages to the city’s inhabitants. She tells the story of two girls, the best of friends, who, in the space of a handclap, couldn’t understand each other. It’s a story of friendship and the ways their sudden differences were overcome.

the playgrounds interior 2
interior image from The Playgrounds of Babel by JonArno Lawson & Piet Grobler

The old woman’s speech bubble filled with symbols, one boy translates the story for the other. The one boy keeps interrupting and we learn that The Playgrounds story is about learning to listen. It’s also about learning to imagine. A common refrain is: “Just imagine! No one’s asking you to believe.” Neither the listener/reader has to believe in God or Dragons.

The story as told is the only source of color in an otherwise black/white present-day. The woman’s words telling the story are also in color. The landscape is an urban playground, with elements that may be inspiring to the storyteller (the airplane’s banner). There are really nice details in the story illustrations and “reality:” The birds building a nest in a tree (reality). How God whistling is rendered (in imagination). How the two girls, one black and the other white, are employed.

the playgrounds interior 1
interior image from The Playgrounds of Babel by JonArno Lawson & Piet Grobler

I appreciate how the boys (one of color, one white) imagined the girls (who knows the details given by the old woman) in a friendship like theirs. Naturally it works for a story that would want to show that any manufactured differences can be undermined by the things that make us all human—our imagination being one. I appreciated that the boys can hear and imagine and believe the stories with female protagonists. The girls’ friendship makes sense to them; “They stayed close friends for the rest of their lives,” “That sounds realistic.”

What rich picture book to mine for a story of friendship, of navigating barriers, of ideas of story, imagination and what is real/believable. Absolutely lovely. A must.

Published by L

I read, and I write. and until recently, I sold books.

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