A Day for Sandcastles is a wordless picture book by JonArno Lawson and illustrated by Qin Leng. And I absolutely love every single grain of sand about it. I read several comments about the book wondering how, or why, it lists an author when there are no words. And I thought it would be interesting to talk about what makes a wordless picture book successful and use A Day for Sandcastles as that example—because I have read many wordless books that I think, bluntly put— did not work.
JonArno said in an interview that I read by Samantha Balaban on NPR (you can read it here) that he got the idea for the book while watching his own children build sand castles on the beach. The kids kept building their castles too close to the waterline. He tried to convince them to move their building zone further up toward the grass line, but they stayed put. Then the author noticed that part of their enjoyment seemed to be the destruction and the need to redo, reinvent, and rebuild their creations. Each time adding new structures based on what survived and what might have washed in with the waves. He also stated in the article that he supplied artist Qin Leng (I am a mega fan) with a page long synopsis. Sort of like a script for the book. And this makes perfect sense to me.
Even though this author and illustrator know that they are going to create a wordless picture book, there is still needs to be a structure to the book. A beginning, a middle, an end. Main characters. Things that happen. Pacing. All those things that could be told in words are still there— they are just hidden. This is why this book is so extraordinarily successful. It has this narrative structure, a sturdy skeleton, holding it together.
Enter the illustrator. It helps that the illustrator is Qin Leng who executes JonArno Lawson’s storyline with the eye of a filmmaker. She is brilliantly flawless at guiding us through this story. She changes the perspective to give an unmoving spot of landscape a life of it’s own. We zoom in and out, up and down, this way and that, with drone-like ease. She subtly changes the color palette so that we go from a sleepy morning hue, to a hot afternoon sunniness, and then quietly retire to dusky end-of-the-big-day grays as everyone goes back on the bus to ride home. I am obsessed with the way Qin Leng creates mini narratives within the story. These tiny details of the supporting characters maintain our interest and curiosity. It also makes the reader/viewer realize that this little area of beach is a community for a day. Made up of many different families, each playing out their very own stories.
I believe another reason that this book works so well is that it taps into our personal experiences. The nostalgia of our own individual and unique beach impressions allows us all to read and feel something different in the story. If there were words, would that limit that? Not “telling” us with text allows each of us to bring our own interpretations to the tale based on different memories and experiences.
I could smell the salty ocean brine and feel the warm sand between my toes. I love this book. Thank you JonArno Lawson and Qin Leng for creating such a harmonious picture book. Even if there are no words.