The Playgrounds of Babel
The Playgrounds of Babel
JonArno Lawson’s The Playgrounds of Babel presents an updated version of the biblical story of the tower of Babel which explains why people speak different languages across the world. The book begins with two children listening to an old woman in a park tell the story; one child asks, “What is she saying?” while the other responds with, “I’ll translate”. In this version, God sends a dragon to destroy the tower and make it impossible for people to understand each other. Meanwhile, there are two young girls who were best friends, but suddenly they can’t understand each other. They are frustrated and sad, but realize that music brings them together:
And then the other girl, hearing the melody, joined in. But they were singing different words, but now they had a way to translate, because they knew they were singing exactly the same thing in two different languages.
The dragon is called back by God, and the two girls remain friends into adulthood.
The illustrations by Piet Grobler are gloomy and dark, with splashes of colour for the dragon, the people of the world, and the two girls. The story is told using dialogue with speech bubbles as two children (one fair skinned and one dark) discuss the story that the old woman is telling. One child continually interrupts the narrative, expressing disbelief or asking for more details.
Lawson tries to make the book more inclusive by including dialogue such as. “I don’t believe in God”, to which the other child answers, “Just imagine! No one’s asking you to believe.” There’s also the added plot of the two girls emphasizing that, while people are different, they can be friends and live in harmony. The book may have appeal for teachers and parents looking to teach about diversity or etiology. But, despite adding the twist of a dragon and a perspective that the tower gave the world the gift of diversity, I would still consider The Playgrounds of Babel to be a biblical story which may impact its appeal to a broad audience.
While the publisher recommends ages 6-9 for this book, The Playgrounds of Babel is better suited for older children, 8-12, who, with guidance and prompting from teachers and parents, can delve deeper into themes of differences and similarities of the human condition. The rather dark and ominous style of the illustrations would also be another reason to recommend the book to an older audience.
I found the best part of The Playgrounds of Babel to be the “Author’s Note” in which Lawson explains how a childhood friend lost his ability to speak English after moving to Germany. When his friend returned from Germany, the two friends could not speak to one another because the boy had forgotten English and could only speak German. His friend regained English quickly, but the experience was upsetting. I think that anecdote would make a great picture book in and of itself.
Dr. Kristen Ferguson teaches literacy education at the Schulich School of Education at Nipissing University in North Bay, Ontario.