Review of the Day: Town is By the Sea by Joanne Schwartz, ill. Sydney Smith
There’s been a lot of talk lately about how a parent can engender empathy in their children. It’s a good question and worth a lot of discussion and listening. As a parent I’ve wondered about it myself, but it’s not the only question I’ve asked myself. How do you give a child a sense of self-worth without false ego inflation? Does responsibility linked with a direct reward system help or hurt the child in the long run? And most importantly (and this is a kicker) how do you help a child feel grateful for the life that they lead? Gratitude is a particularly difficult feeling to get a read on. You could spend all your livelong days telling a kid how grateful they should feel, but are you really going to get an emotional response out of them? Enter literature. Books. Learning. On Twitter today I saw an article in passing that suggested that we learn how to be human through books. If that’s the case then let me read Town Is by the Sea to my kids one more time. Exquisitely rendered, it’s a subtle day-in-the-life title that through the repetition of the text, and the pairing of light and dark images, manages to show, not tell, how hard the life of a coal miner’s kid can be.
“From my house, I can see the sea.” A boy narrates a typical day in a Cape Breton mining town. While he scampers up the hills, plays with his friend, swings, walks to the store, and admires the sunlight on the water, his father toils away beneath the sea in a coal mine. The boy narrates for us how his days tend to play out and though we seem to see what looks like a collapse in the mine, nothing changes the boy’s spritely text. He’s no more excited than usual when his father comes home, but we know how close the man came to death. As the boy drifts off for the night we are assured that one day, down in those deep dark tunnels, “it will be my turn.” And the cycle of mining will begin anew.
I love a picture book that knows how to be a picture book. Joanne Schwartz has been in this game for years and you can tell (and the fact that she’s a double threat as both author and children’s librarian probably doesn’t hurt matters either). The choice use of repetition and simple lines lend the text this oddly comforting quality, even as some of the images grow increasingly suspect. The fact that the book is narrated in the first person present tense is a careful choice. In the voice of the boy you discovered that in the face of uncertainty (whether or not his dad will come home alive at the end of the day) the boy has organized his life precisely. The location of his house to the road, cliff, sea, and town. A catalog of sounds heard when he wakes up. The form of the boy’s morning, lunch, and walk to the store. And these words are so constant and comforting to the reader that when you hit on that silent two-page spread, not knowing if the dad is alive or dead, it’s a gut punch. Artist Sydney Smith is also on board with the boy’s systematic cataloging, turning the bright days of summer into six distinct squares on the penultimate pages, finalizing everything with the black of the sea at night.
For such a dark concept it’s not a dark book. When my husband and I read this book to our six-year-old and three-year-old they seemed more intrigued by the fact that a kid could walk by himself to the store (this is the 50s’ after all) than the fact that someday that boy will work all day in the claustrophobic dark below the sea. Indeed I was intrigued to find that the chilling final lines of the picture book sink far deeper into the psyches of the adults reading this book than the kids. But I like that Joanne Schwartz does not judge the workers or the town. The inevitability of becoming a miner isn’t delivered by the young protagonist with anything more than simple honesty. Just listen to those final lines: “I’m a miner’s son. In my town, that’s the way it goes.” The dread I felt when he alluded to his future was purely personal, helped in no small part by Schwartz & Smith’s clever pairing of sunlight and gloom throughout the book. You might not want to work down there, but when your future is set in stone it’s hard to think outside the box. There’s a quote that Schwartz includes in her Author’s Note from Robert McIntosh’s Boys in the Pits: Child Labour in the Coal Mines that summarizes this perfectly. “The boy may have seen for years his father and older brothers leave for the pit. For most boys raised within these communities, the day arrived when they too surrendered their childhood to it.”
Toronto artist Sydney Smith first came to the notice of a lot of American children’s librarians when he illustrated JonArno Lawson’s sublime Sidewalk Flowers. Smith captured the tone of the book so beautifully that had he any American residency at all that title would have been a true Caldecott Award contender. In “Town Is by the Sea” Smith stretches his proverbial limbs. Interestingly, he doesn’t dwell on the industrial grit and grime of the coal mines. The image of the industrial site is almost rudimentary and down in the mines themselves he’s far more interested in conveying the sheer oppressive weight of the rock and the sea by placing the workers in the lowest strata of the page. The bulk of the book is far more interested in light. How it fogs the horizon in the morning so that the line between sea and sky blurs to white. How a midday sun flecks the tips of the waves out at sea a pure white. Early afternoon sunlight through windowpanes and the sparkle of sun on sea and that sunset . . . that sunset. Though the Author’s Note at the end mentions that this book is set in the 1950s, you wouldn’t necessarily notice. There’s a timeless quality to these watercolors.
To feel gratitude for one’s life, one needs to start out in a pretty privileged position from the start. If there’s nothing to feel grateful for then you’re probably not going to start because of a picture book. Still, a lot of kids in America that have regular access to picture books should feel a little gratitude for the fact that they don’t have to work in the coal mines when they turn 18. You get the feeling from the boy in Town Is by the Sea that he is perfectly aware of how lucky he is to see the sun shining on the sea all day every day. Schwartz and Smith have created a book that is both a good story and a beautiful object. A book that grants dignity to its characters and a seriousness to its subject matter without sacrificing a child’s need for play. This is, in short, a magnificent book. The kind that every reader will interpret in a different way. Only the best books can do that. Only the best books are capable.
On shelves now.
Source: F&G sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- Building Our House by Jonathan Bean
- The Dark by Lemony Snicket, ill. Jon Klassen
- I Like, I Don’t Like by Anna Baccelliere, ill. Ale + Ale
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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