March 22, 2017

Town Is by the Sea

Written by Joanne Schwartz
Illustrated by Sydney Smith
Groundwood Books
52 pp.
Ages 5-9
April 2017

A little longer than most picture books, Town Is by the Sea needs all those pages to envelop the daily life of a father and son, one above ground in the sunshine of a summer day and the other in the dark deeps of a coal mine.  It's a picture book about legacy, family, work and child's play.  Amazing that Joanne Schwartz and Sydney Smith managed all that in 52 pages.

Long before a little boy awakens to stand in his underwear at the window and gaze upon the sea, his father has breakfasted, grabbed his lunchbox and joined the multitudes of men making their way to work in the coal mines. The father's routine in the darkest dark is juxtaposed against the brightness and lightness of the young boy's day.  Working underground versus playing and running in the sun. Both close to the sea but different.  Though the boy's day is filled with different activities like swinging in the playground, enjoying his lunch, going to the store, visiting his grandfather's grave, and sitting by the sea, his father's day is the same throughout, sombrely depicted with one line, repeated with similar oppressive illustrations:
"And deep down under that sea, my father is digging for coal.
From Town Is by the Sea 
by Joanne Schwartz 
illus. by Sydney Smith
While it might appear that the end of the day has come when his father returns home safe and the family is drawn together for supper and a sit on the porch overlooking the sea, the young boy's day ends with thoughts of the two different types of days and his own inevitable future in the mines.

"In my town, that's the way it goes."

Town Is by the Sea is a powerful story in words and text of lives lived in a town based in coal mining. Both author Joanne Schwartz and illustrator Sydney Smith are Nova Scotia-born and the depth of their knowledge is evident in the weight of their contributions to the book.  Though Town Is by the Sea could be an oppressive story of a dangerous vocation and the formidable eventuality for the boy and his cohorts, Joanne Schwartz and Sydney Smith play up the lightness of childhood, giving a shine to the boy's movements, even in the visit to his grandfather's grave.  

  My grandfather used to say,
Bury me facing the sea b'y,
I worked long and hard

From Town Is by the Sea 
by Joanne Schwartz
 illus. by Sydney Smith
The antithesis of the two lives is reflected in the very sea that pervades their landscapes and their livelihoods.  It is both brilliant and overbearing, life giving and life sapping.  It can sparkle and shimmer or be frothy and tumultuous.  In her words, Joanne Schwartz gets it right.  In his artwork, Sydney Smith is definitive. His watercolour and ink illustrations, the very style that garnered Sidewalk Flowers (JonArno Lawson, Groundwood, 2015) numerous awards and had me effusive over The White Cat and the Monk (JoEllen Bogart, Groundwood, 2016), produces that contrast of light and dark, and easy and difficult, so apparently effortlessly that it's as if Sydney Smith was born to illustrate this very book.  

I'm so pleased that neither Joanne Schwartz, a Toronto librarian, and Sydney Smith, illustrator extraordinaire, were destined to lives beneath the sea digging coal.  Without them,  there would be no Town Is by the Sea and this story book is far too important to never have been shared with those who live by that sea and those who do not.
From Town Is by the Sea 
by Joanne Schwartz 
illus. by Sydney Smith


  1. I expect this gorgeous book to be a contender for the Governor General's award this year. It is truly stunning!