“There are a lot of people (in the children’s book universe) that just want beautiful books for everyone.” | Q&A with Illustrator Sydney Smith

Scanned cover of "Sidewalk Flowers" Illustrated by Sydney Smith
Scanned cover of “Sidewalk Flowers” Illustrated by Sydney Smith
Illustrations in a book are somewhat important but when a book is created without words, then the illustrations take on a whole new role in a book. Illustrator Sydney Smith found himself in that situation when he drew the artwork for JonArno Lawson’s Sidewalk Flowers. (Link to my review) Smith recently answered a few questions about his experiences.
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1) How are you finding the reaction to “Sidewalk Flowers” so far? Has there been any memorable responses to it?

A: The response to Sidewalk Flowers has surpassed all of my expectations. There were moments when I was working on the book that i thought either this could do well or this is total garbage. I think if you have that thought it’s a good sign. It means the work is probably good and that you are taking a risk.
There have been lots of reviews from around the world, some that i have had to Google translate. Its pretty exciting for me. People are seeing my drawings from China to Mexico.
2) How did you like creating the illustrations for “Sidewalk Flowers?” Was bringing JonArno Lawson’s (and his daughter’s) vision to light an easy thing to do? How long did it take for you to create all the illustrations?
A: I loved working on JonArno’s beautiful and poetic story. I moved to Toronto from Halifax when i first started working on the project and that bit of culture shock informed the drawings. It took about six months from the sketches to the finals.
3) Are you working on anything new right now? If so, are there details you care to share?
A: I’m working on a picture book called “The White Cat and the Monk” by Jo Ellen Bogart, I’m illustrating a historical picture book covering the 150 years of Canada, I’ve starting working on a chapter book written by Esta Spalding and I’m working on drawings that will be on the walls of a children’s ward of a Toronto Hospital. I’m busy but really excited about everything I’m doing.
4) How did you get involved in illustrating? Are there illustrators that you admire? If yes, who are they and why do you like their work?
A: I think my early love of books and comics led me to illustrating. I drew a lot when i was younger and when i went to Nova Scotia College of Art and Design I pushed against it at first but I had some great teachers. I remember Dan O’Neill, my printmaking teacher, handing me a pamphlet with the Governor General shortlist of Children’s Illustrators. He said, this could be you. I never forgot that.
I admire lots of illustrators. It’s hard to narrow it down but lately its been the weirder the better. The books I currently have signed out from the library are illustrated by Charles Keeping and John Burmingham. I’m trying to push myself to take more risks but its hard. My hand doesn’t want to obey and in the end we just compromise.
Scanned detail illustration by Sydney Smith as seen in Sidewalk Flowers
Scanned detail illustration by Sydney Smith as seen in Sidewalk Flowers
5) Your work has illustrated books, magazines and various forms of musical recordings. Is there a preferred area of work that you enjoy illustrating for? If yes, why?
A: Children’s books are where I feel most comfortable. For the most part i am left to myself, and there are few limitations other than my own criticizing. With other kinds of illustrations like Music and Editorial you are always representing someone else. And that makes people nervous and the risk of being micromanaged is greater. I don’t respond well to that.
6) Your bio page on your website states that you studied in Nova Scotia but now live in Toronto. How do you – as an illustrator – enjoy living in Toronto? Does that city’s cultural life provide you with any inspiration for your work?
A: Toronto is a completely different pace for me. In Halifax I balanced work out with other activities. Coffee dates, sandwich meetings, beer rendezvous’. But since moving here its more intense. There are long days that sometimes stretch into the next day, and 7 day work weeks.
I love working on Spadina because i have the Lillian Smith library and its children’s books and the Art Gallery on Ontario so close to me. Also China Town is so busy, on nice days, i sit on a bench and draw the traffic during my coffee break.
7) You seem to have an active role on both Facebook and Twitter. How do you like using social media for your work?
A: I don’t know if i have that figured out yet. Tumblr, and Twitter seems to only work if you are consistent and I’m not. I don’t think i will fail in life if i never figure out how to tweet but i can understand how its a good method of reaching an audience. I have a hard time believing anyone wants to hear me talking about my brunch. Maybe i should stop tweeting about my brunch.
8) I know most writers get to go out on book tours for their works, but do you get to attend functions for any of the books that you have published? If yes, what was that experience like for you? If no, is it something that you would like to do?
A: Oh yes. Book tours are fun but they don’t happen for every book. I had the privilege of touring with Sheree Fitch when i illustrated her books. I learned a lot from her. Like don’t sign your name on a child’s forehead even if they ask.
Sidewalk Flowers was launched in Halifax which meant so much to me. There were a lot of people there including my family and friends; some of whom i haven’t seen in years. I teared up when i gave my speech.
The illustrators of children’s books get more attention than illustrators of other media. I’m just starting to realize how vast the children’s book universe is. There are a lot of people in it that just want beautiful books for everyone. There are no agendas, no scams, just a lot of people making beautiful books that inspire, move, excite, humor, and offer escape.

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