August 14, 2019

The Playgrounds of Babel

Written by JonArno Lawson
Illustrated by Piet Grobler
Groundwood Books
32 pp.
Ages 5-10
August 2019

From JonArno Lawson, the author of the award-winning Sidewalk Flowers (illustrated by Sydney Smith, Groundwood, 2015), comes another important story about differences and communication that demonstrates we are far less disparate than appearances may suggest.
From The Playgrounds of Babel by JonArno Lawson, illus. by Piet Grobler
The story begins with a kerchief-clad woman telling a story to a group of children. Her language, in the hand-drawn speech bubbles, is a series of lines, dots, and shapes. One boy translates for his friend, who clearly does not understand the woman, and so begins an updated version of the Tower of Babel biblical story. The dark-haired translator shares how at one time everyone spoke the same language until they attempted to build a tower to reach God. In response, God sent a dragon to destroy the tower and confounded their speech into many different languages. The boy's fair-haired friend interjects about not believing in God and knowing there's no dragon in the story but his friend persists. He focuses his story, or rather the woman's story, on two girls who suddenly cannot speak to one another.
From The Playgrounds of Babel by JonArno Lawson, illus. by Piet Grobler
Amidst their crying at this turn of events, the girls hug and realize that the songs they'd sung before could be the commonality they need. Though the words are different, they now "had a way to translate, because they knew they were singing exactly the same thing in two different languages."
From The Playgrounds of Babel by JonArno Lawson, illus. by Piet Grobler
Author JonArno Lawson explains the origins of his story in his Author's Note and, while it has a personal foundation from his own childhood and from the inquisitiveness of his own daughter, The Playgrounds of Babel extends far beyond these sparks. It speaks to the opportunities our differences provide to make our world richer not weaker. Throughout the story, a variety of languages are "spoken" from the birds who speak in terms of berries or caterpillars and snakes who speak in Ss as well as backward Ss. Everyone has a language that may be different from another but still allows them to communicate. Even in the world from which the boys and storyteller speak, there is more than just the words. There is imagination and the need to suspend disbelief and to see that God could whistle for a dragon to return to the heavens.

South African artist Piet Grobler provides the illustrations that blend harshness with wonder in a story within a story. I like that the contemporary setting from which the boys and the storyteller speak is dark and stark, until the end, and the world of the two girls is colourful and diverse. It reminds us that the storyteller brings the richness of colour to a story, even if it's one based in conflict or difficulty. Using watercolour and ink (including the dip pen to produce lines of varying thickness), Piet Grobler contrasts the two worlds and changes the reader's perspective repeatedly.

The Playgrounds of Babel has a powerful message about communication and differences but it's also about telling stories and realizing that anything can be real if we believe.

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