Florence & Leon
Florence & Leon
Florence immediately positions her straw…nice and straight in front of her eye. All she can see is Leon’s smile. She moves the straw around and sees a nose, then an eye and then another eye.
“So you don’t see all of me?”
“Yes and no. Fortunately, my brain puts all your pieces together like a puzzle.”
“So you don’t know if I’m pretty or not?”
“I’d have to be completely blind to not see that you are pretty!”
Florence’s face turns red as a poppy.
A romance couched in an exploration of disability, Florence & Leon is a picture book that defies categorization. The story begins with a brief sojourn into the protagonists’ childhoods but quickly fast forwards to their adulthoods where they meet and, just maybe, end up falling in love. Florence has lung issues, but she, nevertheless, has pursued her passion for swimming. Meanwhile, Leon has a visual impairment and works as an insurance agent. One morning, Florence literally runs into Leon while rushing to work. They hit it off and agree to meet for coffee after she finishes teaching her swimming lesson.
The presentation and description of disability is, to this untrained eye, well done. Both Florence and Leon are successful adults. Florence has overcome the limitations of her condition through what must have been a lot of hard work. Happily, the book does not descend into inspiration porn, lavishing praise on those who have overcome barriers and using them as motivation to encourage others to work hard and achieve their dreams. Like everyone else, Florence and Leon are simply living their lives as best they can. Using the analogy of a straw to describe each of the characters’ disabilities is inspired. Florence describes her limited lung capacity as breathing through a straw – a feat that becomes particularly challenging when engaging in intense physical activity. Leon, meanwhile, has limited vision. He described the experience as looking through a straw.
The language is, in turn playful, matter-of-fact, and evocative. The story is gentle and romantic without being overly emotional. The realities of being different are touched on, such as when Leon mentions being bullied in gym class, but the narrative quickly moves past any negative feelings. The friendship and potential romance are charming and believable as the protagonists are clearly cut from the same cloth. In fact, they are so similar that their personalities are nearly indistinguishable. While idealistic, this does ensure that the genial tone of the story is maintained throughout the narrative.
The illustrations were created using a combination of watercolours, coloured pencils, graphite, and digital editing. They employ a limited palette, opting to contrast vivid colours with a grey environment to highlight characters and important elements of the story. The characters are expressive, and the art both matches and magnifies the overall tone of the text. What the illustrations don’t do is provide additional content to the narrative. They faithfully depict what is described in the story, with the occasional cute nod to text (such as a growth chart on the wall when it is stated that Leon will grow up tall), but nothing more.
Florence & Leon is a lovely picture book, but one that may end up searching for an audience. Primary grades will understand it but may become bored with the lack of action. Intermediate grades, once convinced to read a picture book, will likely be charmed. In all probability, adults will be the primary admirers of this title – limiting its marketability somewhat.
Regardless of who ends up reading it, Florence & Leon will bring a smile to readers’ faces.
Sadie Tucker is a children’s librarian with the Vancouver Public Library.