Written in homage to her grandad, Percy, and as a poetic reflection on a time and place lost to the sea, White’s debut picture book is a beautiful dream-like ode to her hometown. Set against a seaside fishing village on the East Coast of Suffolk, The Baker by the Sea sweeps over hill and dale until it anchors on the sandy shores of Lowestoft in a period prior to the 1950s.
‘This is my home. Our home, our beach village by the sea.’
The gentle rhythm of the words rolls with the tide as White’s illustrations pan over blacksmiths and basketmakers, sail-makers and boatbuilders as well as coopers and net-makers. We are witness to trades and ways of living that, for the most part, may feel lost to time and, quite literally in this story, tide yet which White is passionate about preserving.
For me, the real success comes in White’s ability to bring this period and community to life through her gentle, pencil, pen and ink illustrations. Relying upon a limited palette of greys and tonal blues for the most part (except for the warm yellow glow of the baker’s oven), her visual and written narrative crosses over the village, passing over the bustle of residents’ hard-working day-to-day lives and its centring around the fishing trade. Sharp-eyed readers will find joy in spotting the picture book narrator throughout: a young baker’s boy who understands that ‘the sea is the beating heart’ of all they do. He delivers his father’s bread, buns and biscuits to the different residents, gently inviting the viewer along until he settles on his bed after a hard day’s work, the gentle soothing of the sea drawing him to sleep.
From here, the panelling and pace of the picture book shifts from double-page spreads to something more constrained. The boy imagines the fishermen out in the windy weather, fishing beneath inky-black skies. Blankets of fog heighten the anticipation and risk yet there is a curious draw for the young boy to be a part of it in some way. In contrast, the boy’s father toils in the warmth of his bakery, making food for the fisherman upon their return. A fisherman’s life, he shares with his son later, was not for him.
Central to this picturebook is White’s recognition that everyone has a part to play in this community and no one role is paramount above others. Although the young boy considers the excitement of fishing, he shares with his father that joy comes from providing for his people by making bread alongside him: something that White’s own grandfather, who was the village’s baker, struggled to accept. The story closes with a beautiful, double-page spread depicting father and son contentedly kneading dough together.
The Baker by the Sea celebrates those small-village communities in which everyone worked hard together and looked after each other. It is quite poignant that the village then has been lost to the elements but perhaps readers can take something from the idea that something special happens when communities come together. A lovely book for reading aloud and sharing.