About 10 years ago, JonArno Lawson was on a Virginia beach watching his children build sand castles right next to the waves.
“I kept trying to get them back because I thought it was a really bad idea,” he says. He wanted them to build their sandcastles closer to the dunes. But they found it more exciting to build where the waves hit, watch their sand castles get destroyed, and then rebuild them with all the debris thrown up by the ocean.
“It felt so symbolic, in a way, of…how life works more than just building your perfect sandcastle,” Lawson says.
When he decided to turn this sunny day into a children’s book, the idea came to use only images. “It seemed like it would work wonderfully without words,” he says. “As if all this would only be visual.”
A day for sand castles is illustrated by Qin Leng. This is the second wordless picture book for Lawson and Leng since 2021. above the shop.
For the new book, Lawson gave Leng a short manuscript—essentially a one-page movie script—of what he imagined. “It’s a real collaboration that way, because the way it appears then is completely Qin,” explains Lawson.
Leng’s illustration stays pretty true to real life. A trio of siblings – who Lawson says even look like his children, though he hasn’t shared photos with Leng – spend the day building sandcastles and watching them get destroyed by a flying hat, a wandering toddler and the waves.
“To me, it’s a celebration of childhood and the simple joys of life,” says Leng. “It’s the kind of stuff I like to capture. I like to draw people. I like to draw them in the mundane moments of everyday life, but moments that we can all relate to.”
Leng spent part of her childhood in France and says she was inspired by European comics. For A day for sand castles, she used a fountain pen with the smallest nib she could find to do very detailed, very refined illustrations with a very light watercolor wash. She also added a lot of personal touches.
“What I like to do when illustrating a picture book is add side stories to the main storyline,” says Leng. “I always think about the reader and the longevity of the book, and I want them to be able to discover something new each time they revisit the book.”
She hid characters that readers might recognize above the shop in beach scenes. She was also inspired by a trip her own family took to Cape Cod during the year she was illustrating A day for sand castles and included his own family chasing a fleeing parasol in the background of one of the panels.
JonArno Lawson and Qin Leng agree that one of the best parts of wordless picture books is the experience of sharing them with children.
“I’ve noticed that my son is more engrossed in observing the small details on the signs than just listening to me read the sentence and move on to the next page,” Leng said. “As a reader, you have to piece together and sort of solve the puzzle, you know, figure out what’s happening on the page.”
Lawson says one of the things he didn’t expect was how much kids would want to interact with a wordless picture book. “They have their own memories that they’re going to connect,” he says. “And they’ll have, you know, violent disagreements in the classrooms. But that’s fine. It’s kind of like a conversation.”
As the day progresses, the siblings take a lunch break on the beach before building another sandcastle. They get bigger and bigger, more elaborate.
Leng says that one of the challenges in the illustration A day for sand castles is that she only had one place to work; she had to make every page a little different, so it wasn’t just blue sky, yellow sand, blue water.
“Nothing really changes. So it was all about making the compositions interesting,” she says. To do this, she drew the scene from different angles and divided the beach into panels – almost like a graphic novel. There are wide shots and close-ups, and she played with the light a lot. The day begins at dawn, with cool light, and by lunchtime you can practically feel the sun getting warmer and warmer, before turning yellow closer to sunset.
“I think there’s a sweetness at the end of the book, where it feels like the book is falling asleep when we’re done,” Leng says.
At the end of the day, sleeping children pile into the bus that will take them home. Lawson says these final pages are among his favorites. “It captures that feeling like at the end of the day at the beach, when it’s dark and you feel completely cooked,” he says. It must be a universal childhood feeling: crusty with sand, sticky with salt, hot with the sun, ready to fall asleep as soon as you get in the car.
“It’s a bit melancholic at the end of the book, I think when the day is over and they have to go,” says Leng.
That’s the funny thing about memories, Lawson says. “If you had a sad experience, you remember it sadly. But if you had a happy experience, it’s also a bit sad.”
“It’s the holidays,” adds Leng with a laugh. “It’s summer vacation.”
Samantha Balaban and Melissa Gray produced and edited this interview for broadcast.