The Playgrounds of Babel

by Jonarno Lawson (Author) Piet Grobler (Illustrator)

Reading Level: 2nd − 3rd Grade

This unusual, thought-provoking story begins with an old woman telling a tale to a group of children in a playground. One of the boys can't understand what she is saying, so another offers to translate. The old woman's tale is inspired by the Tower of Babel story: In the days when everyone spoke the same language, the people built a tower to reach God. But God was annoyed and sent a dragon to destroy the tower, then created new languages for everyone so that they couldn't understand each other. Fortunately, two little girls find a way to communicate through song.

Told entirely through dialogue, moving back and forth between the old woman's tale and the exchange between the two boys, this original, sometimes funny story raises questions about what divides us and what brings us together, in spite of all our differences -- it is the power of song in this case, which ultimately brings hope. Piet Grobler brings a masterful visual interpretation to this layered story, rendering the old woman and children in the playground in monochromatic tones and the characters in the old woman's tale in a naïve style with vibrant color, complete with incomprehensible languages in hand-drawn speech balloons. An author's note explains JonArno Lawson's inspiration for the story.

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Kirkus Reviews

A conversation starter.

School Library Journal

K-Gr 4--This truly unique picture book tells a version of the biblical story of the Tower of Babel as an explanation of how languages came to be. The story is cleverly framed by Lawson (Sidewalk Flowers) as a tale woven on a playground by an old woman in a kerchief. A black child translates this story to a white child, and the entire text is made up of their dialogue. The translator explains that one's belief in God or lack thereof is irrelevant when it comes to the story, as long as one has imagination. The woman's story continues to tell of two friends (a black girl and white girl) who suddenly find themselves unable to communicate. They eventually learn that they still share the language of touch, emotion, and song. Grobler's illustrations depicting the story within the story bring light and color onto the pages, while the world of the storyteller is stark, gray, and gloomy. Eventually, color comes into present day via a vivid orange sunset behind the dark city buildings. The images are highly textured and multidimensional, layering collaged buildings with drawn and painted images of different weights and levels of detail. The Babel story is depicted in a folk-art style. The dragon (not a feature of the original story) is yellow, winged, and scaly, and God appears feminine, shown beneath a blue crown and robe. VERDICT A lighthearted, child-centric framing of a biblical story told without any religious emphasis, housed in a package that is quite exquisite.--Clara Hendricks, Cambridge Public Library, MA

Copyright 2019 School Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.
Lexile Measure
Guided Reading Level
Groundwood Books
Publication date
August 20, 2019
BISAC categories
JUV051000 - Juvenile Fiction | Imagination & Play
JUV022000 - Juvenile Fiction | Legends, Myths, & Fables | General
JUV008070 - Juvenile Fiction | Comics & Graphic Novels | Fairy Tales, Folklore, Legends & Mythology
JUV074000 - Juvenile Fiction | Diversity & Multicultural
Library of Congress categories
Interpersonal communication
Babel, Tower of
Translating and interpreting

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