Title: Over the Shop
Author: Jon Arno Lawson
Illustrator: Qin Leng
Publisher: Candlewick, 2021
Genre: wordless fiction
Themes: lgbtqia+, trans, grandparents, acceptance, community, companionship, differences,
The first few spreads show us a day in the life of a young girl who lives with her gender-ambiguous grandparent in the rooms behind their run-down general store. The grandparent is busy getting food onto their table and running the shop; we sense that the girl is often left to her own devices. The seems safe but exudes a certain loneliness.
One day, the grandparent puts up a sign advertising the apartment above the shop. Many people visit but either aren’t interested or are turned off by the apartment’s run down appearance. Then one day, a new couple stops by. One person is dark-skinned with long hair, and reads as female; the other is Asian with short hair and could be read as nonbinary, a transgender man, or a butch/masculine woman. Lawson’s dedication in the front of the book is “To trans activists of all ages,” so maybe the character was intended as trans, but I think readers have leeway in interpretation. Regardless, they’re probably a queer couple; the Asian person has a rainbow-hued belt that we see subtly in several scenes, and a rainbow hat in another.
The girl senses something positive about them and urges her grandparent to let them take the apartment. The grandparent gives them a critical look—we’re not sure if it’s because they’re a queer couple, a non-White and interracial couple, or because the grandparent is simply crotchety—but finally concedes. The couple soon begins to clean up the apartment, wave hello to a suspicious (and gender-ambiguous) neighbor, and engage the girl in their sprucing up. Their DIY projects spread beyond the apartment to the rest of the building, and eventually, they start helping at the store, too. The grouchy grandparent’s demeanor brightens; even the neighbor begins to freshen up the building next door. The transformations continue and a rainbow flag—the first on the block—is hung outside the store, and we then see the girl, grandparent, couple, and neighbor sharing a meal together.
Why I like this book:
The author dedicates this book to “trans activists of all ages,” and it is wordless. He is the Canandian poet and writer JonArno Lawson, you may remember his also wordless and exquisite Sidewalk Flowers, published in 2015. Obviously this is not a read-aloud but a pour-over-for-hours kind of picture book. I am always wowed when a wordless book is created by separate author and illustrator. Leng’s watercolor-and-ink drawings are soft but animated, and offer many details that will encourage multiple “readings”. The illustrations pack in more story than words could. She also gives us a secondary storyline involving a neighborhood cat. 🙂
I love this book on many levels. It is a wordless presentation showing us single acts of kindness can change not only our world but the lives of those around us. The storytelling is very pure, without a hint of preachiness. Add this book to your bookshelves today, or recommend it to your local school or library.
This is 100% sure to provoke a great conversation. Possibilities for discussion are about: acceptance of people who don’t look like us; socioeconomic differences and struggles; gender and whether knowing someone’s gender makes a difference; friendship and helping; neighborhood, community, and family.
Each week a group of bloggers reviews picture books we feel would make great educational reads. To help teachers, caregivers and parents, we have included resources and/or activities with each of our reviews. A complete list of the thousands of books we have reviewed can be found sorted alphabetically and by topics, here on Susanna Leonard Hill’s website.
What a memorable book. The illustrations have a European feel to it, but I may be wrong. I love that it is wordless and allows for many discussions between parent and child. And, I like that the child’s grandparent is trans gender. Will look for this book! Thanks for the recommendation.
There is so much to love about this, and all without words. I agree, it has a little of a Quentin Blake feel to the illustrations.
I like your suggestion that interpretation is left up to the reader. The artwork is gorgeous. For some reason, it feels Dickensian. And I don’t know why. Maybe because of the color palette and the expressiveness of the characters. I love it!
The art work is stunning. I like the Dickensian reference and I wonder if it is also to do with the dour expressions of the grandparent a little?