October 04, 2019

Small in the City

Written and illustrated by Sydney Smith
Groundwood Books
40 pp.
Ages 4-7
September 2019

On October 2, the Canada Council for the Arts announced its finalists for the 2019 Governor General's Literary Awards, and Small in the City was one of the nominated titles for the English-language children's book illustration. This is Sydney Smith's fourth nomination–he and JonArno Lawson won in 2015 for Sidewalk Flowers (Groundwood, 2015)–and this one is all the more distinct as Small in the City is his first picture book as author and illustrator.
From Small in the City by Sydney Smith
Though the cover makes a young child who looks out of a streetcar window larger than life, minimizing the buildings reflected in the glass, Sydney Smith's illustrations show a child peripheral to the city. They look out over the streets of people doing and buildings standing. When they leave the streetcar, they are dwarfed by everything in the busy city. People march past looking at their feet or their phones. Sounds of taxis and car horns and construction and sirens are loud and scary. It's almost too much.
From Small in the City by Sydney Smith
But as the child ventures through the cold streets and snowflakes begin to fall, they know how to be a part of that city. They know which alleys to avoid and wonderful places to hide or climb or enjoy the steam from a dryer vent. As they walk from the busyness into a neighbourhood of trees and yards, local stores and houses, and a park, this child gives advice about where safety can be found. Soon enough the reader will observe that the child has posted salmon-pink notices to posts and fences and doors. The child may be small in the city but a lost cat is even smaller. Still, with the flurries becoming snow squalls with near whiteout conditions, the child reaches home, convinced that "You will be all right."
From Small in the City by Sydney Smith
Sydney Smith's artwork, created with ink, watercolour and gouache, journeys with the child from a dark-toned city centre through neighbourhoods infused with colour to a home blanketed in the lightness of peace and contentment. It's a Toronto of commerce and community, movement and stability, and this child lives in it and of it. They may be small but they are not insignificant and as they walk closer and closer to home, their presence becomes more meaningful.

Being small in the city is a perspective most adults have forgotten. It's seeing the heart of the city as it is, free of interpretation and expectation but infused with perception. As such, Small in the City is a story of a child for children and most certainly for those who have ever lost a pet. This could have been a sad story of loss and fear but Sydney Smith makes it one of resilience and hope, expectation and common sense. It's seeing shelter and warmth, food and comfort where adults might only see trees and shrubs, a dryer vent, the fishmonger and a church ledge. It's perspective as perception that makes Small in the City effusive in community and family and takes the reader from the obscurity to the light of home with its happy ending.

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