Town is by the Sea by Joanne Schwartz, illustrated by Sydney Smith, Groundwood Books, 2017
Occasionally, I have to devote a spot to just one book. I was lucky to get an early copy of this one, and as I consider a new Sydney Smith book an occasion, here we go!
Open the sparkling ocean cover to coal-black end pages, and right away, you feel the dichotomy of this book. Town is by the Sea is at once a love-song and a heartbreaker. See that pensive young boy on the cover? He will be your guide through a day in a coal-mining town circa 1950’s. He will take you on a journey from dawn to sunset, in town and into the mines, via Schwartz’ nearly-pastoral poetry. And yet— how can life be idealized when your father goes under the sea each day to dig coal? And when you know you will grow up to do the same? So “Town” is not idealized, yet to this young boy, it is ideal, it is real, “that’s the way it goes”.
The book tugs at the heartstrings. Many a Nova Scotian will recognize this town, even if they did not grow up in coal country. They will recognize the small-town feel, the sparkle of the ocean, the slow pace of life, the neighbourly characters, the deep sense of family. Though it has a feel of nostalgia, children will be able to appreciate the story, and it will be a welcome addition to classrooms for historical fiction study. With the re-opening of the Donkin Mine in Cape Breton, this book is the perfect way to open discussions bound to arise around safety and environmental issues. The timing of the book’s release is spot-on.
Sydney Smith’s art brings it all home with a thick ink line and an amazing ability to transform watercolour into light. Somehow he is able to make a curtain flap in the breeze, flowers bend as a bicycle rides by, and the on the next page, take us deep underground in a coal tunnel. The bright sun of the town above is in stark contrast to the coal-mining pages, which are created by filling a double spread nearly all the way with dark swathes of grey and black. At the bottom of the page, Smith gives us a small line of air, a seam for the miners to hunch over and light with their headlamps. Just when you cannot take this oppressive dark, you turn the page and go back to ample white space, to boys running, swinging, looking out at the sea. And then, back underground.
The pacing of this book is impeccable. The design includes full-bleed pages, panels, blocks of time passing, and wordless spreads. Both the text and the art breathe with life, and in sync with one another. The book is out on April 1, 2017 — book launch scheduled for March 25 in Halifax! Highly recommended.