Awards: Finalist – 2017 Governor General’s Literary Awards – Young People’s Literature – Illustration
This is a hauntingly beautiful picture book that captures a place and time in Canadian history – small town Cape Breton Island in the 1950’s during the years of underwater coal mining when it was the tradition to follow in the occupational footsteps of your father.
The story “Town Is by the Sea” is told by a young seven or eight year old boy, as he goes through a typical summer day – waking, watching the sea, watching his father leave for work, playing with a friend, running an errand for his mom. But, his thoughts always return to his father who is working in the undersea coal mine. The text has a quiet, lyrical, unhurried quality. (e.g. “It goes like this – house, road, grassy cliff, sea. And town spreads out, this way and that.”)
The repeated refrain – “it goes like this” underscores the rhythm and certainty of his day, and the inevitability of his future.
However, this picture book is acclaimed for its art – the full page, whimsical, watercolour and ink illustrations by Sydney Smith made “Town Is by the Sea” a finalist for the 2017 Governor General’s Literary Award for Young People’s Literature – illustration.
Smith’s illustrations are tranquil and evocative, showing us a glimpse into the life and legacy of a small coal mining town. The blackness and dark colours in the mining scenes stand in stark contrast to the colourful, bright colours in the sunshine above ground, especially the seascapes. Smith’s illustrations of the sea sparkle right on the page, capturing beautifully the sun as it glints off the tops of the waves.
The faces of Smith’s characters are often without expression, but he manages to evoke strong emotion by their posture and activity. (e.g. the miners hunched over and toiling in the bottom of the mine with tons of black coal above; the contrast between the morning stride to work and the slumped figure at the door at the end of the day; the body language over dinner as father and son lean in to one another to talk.
Many of Smith’s illustrations focus on light – a misty dawn, sunlight on the road and in the park, the many shades of blue in the sky and ocean, light in the kitchen as mom rocks the baby, the whiteness of the grave markers as he visits his grandfather’s who was a miner too, and the rosy light of sunset. Both writer and illustrator have conveyed the feeling that this boy does not resent his future, but will still cherish each day until that future arrives– “One day, it will be my turn. I’m a miner’s son. In my town that’s the way it goes”.
Curriculum connection – Grade 2 Social Studies Topic 2.1 Dynamic Canadian Communities – There are many Acadian communities on Cape Breton, and at one time there were many Acadian miners in the coal industry; this story reflects a piece of Acadian history.
Sydney Smith is also the illustrator of “Sidewalk Flowers” (2015 Winner of the Governor General’s Literary Award for Children’s Literature – Illustration) reviewed elsewhere on this website.