Congratulations to Sydney Smith winner of the 2018 CILIP Kate Greenaway Award for Town is by the Sea. In this lyrical picture book with a beautifully crafted text by Joanne Schwartz, Smith takes the reader through a day in the life of one family, following a little boy as he watches his father, a miner, leave for work, then waits for him to come home. The everyday events are meticulously and affectionately recorded while deep under the earth – indeed under the ocean, the father works the mine in darkness. There is a timeless quality to the whole, emphasised by the ever-present sea, captured in all its moods. The illustrations are as restrained and spare as the text yet rich in feeling; strong pen and ink outlines combine with an almost unassuming palette that nevertheless is never dull conveying the sparkle and movement of the sea, the homely interior of the home and the dark jeopardy of the mine.
While Sydney has a number of books to his name in Canada, Town is by the Sea is only the second to appear here. Indeed he confesses ‘I never received a review before’. So how did he feel about it all? Well two years ago the wordless picture book Sidewalk Flowers (Footpath Flowers in the UK) had also been shortlisted ‘When the longlist came out for the Kate Greenaway award, I felt honoured. Then when the shortlist came out I felt this was the best I could hope for. I think I felt the same about this one. I did not feel it was an option that I would win. I believe even making it to the shortlist is enough to add to your bio.’
Looking at the two books one is struck by both the similarities and the differences. Sidewalk Flowers is wordless – though it does have an author, the poet Jonarno Lawson whose original text had been built around a personal experience with his daughter. Over a period, it became apparent that it was a narrative did not require words, rather the illustrations would then challenge the reader to interpret what had been a very private experience. Sydney felt that there was a similar effect in Town is by the Sea where the text, spare, lyrical, gently repetitious, by Joanne Schwartz has the effect of poetry. He found himself accumulating multiple versions of each scene – especially those depicting the sea – to capture just that moment, that emotional effect conjured by Schwartz’ unassuming words. Indeed ‘I added an extra page, a wordless page because I felt that through what I had added visually the separate narrative or additional narrative required that I add an extra moment, that moment of silence where the voice of the narrator is quiet but you see that he is waiting for his own father to come home from work, That is what really gave me shivers; realising that with images you can create a separate narrative; a counterpoint, like a dance.’
Town is by the Sea is set in a small mining village on the edge of the ocean. What was Sydney’s background? Well very much that of the book. Though now living in Toronto and many miles from the sea, his home was a small town on the southern side of Nova Scotia. When he first saw the text by Schwartz he realised this was a special book. He had just moved to the city away from world in which he had grown up. Though he himself was not from a mining family, there is very strong sense of locality within the illustrations; an affectionate reality. As he says “If you want to get the best out of someone, get them to write about their family”. Indeed, Town by the Sea has resonated across the world, Sydney’s illustrations sparking recognition among many readers not just in the UK, but as far afield as Vietnam. He recounts with feeling the message that his Canadian publishers had received from the Vietnamese publishers expressing their appreciation and gratitude since in Vietnam they also had such mining communities; this is indeed a tribute to the power of Sydney’s illustrations.
So what were his influences? Moving to Toronto, he quickly discovered the Osborne Collection – a world renowned historical collection of early children’s books housed in Toronto Public Library. Here he found librarians eager to show him the treasures there. At first ‘I felt it should be a secret’ he confesses, but he realised that it was a place to be shared and often invites friends and fellow illustrators to join him. He mentions artists and illustrators whose work he particularly admires – the Provensens, Duvoisin, Felix Hoffman especially– Quentin Blake and Burningham also. These are illustrators whom he feels have encouraged him to become looser in his style. Growing up he had plenty of access to books, both at home and through the local Bookmobile; The Shrinking of Treehorn with illustrations by Edward Gorey was a particular favourite. And from the beginning he was attracted to the visual, moving from picture books to graphic novels and back to picture books.
Where next? Up until this moment he has always worked with other authors. He is particularly drawn to poetry or a lyric texts ‘I find these kind of texts leave space open for illustration to happen – space for illustration to elevate the story – these are the projects I like best’. He feels both Sidewalk Flowers and Town is by the Sea arrived at apposite moments in his life ‘beginning a new phase of my career and launching me into a more global scene’. In Town is by the Sea he knew he had given it his best. Indeed when he was sent the first copy ‘I sat with it – then when I came back into the room, I would pretend I had never seen it before because I had no insecurities about it. I knew I had done everything I could’. Now he wants to move on turning author as well as illustrator ‘I am really focussed now on working on my own book’. This will I know be something to look forward to.
Ferelith Hordon is active member of CILIP YLG and has served as Chair of both YLG London and of the National Committee. She is editor of Books for Keeps and of IBBYLink, the online journal of IBBY UK.