The beauty of any book occurs when it documents a common theme to a reader while being set in an unique locale. A reader empathizes with the central character while learning about the location, which is simply why many of us enjoy reading and looking at books. And that is exactly what occurs when one looks at Town Is by the Sea written by Joanne Schwartz and illustrated by Sydney Smith.
When I wake up, it goes like this –
first I hear the seagulls, then I hear a dog barking,
a car goes by on the shore road, someone slams a
door and yells good morning.
And along the road, lupine and Queen Anne’s lace
rustle in the wind.
First thing I see when I look
out the window is the sea.
And I know my father is already deep
down under that sea, digging for coal.
I love the feeling this perfect mix of illustrations and words give this book. The story deals with a young boy going through his busy day on a coastal village yet mindful of his father’s hard work digging for coal deep under the sea. Schwartz’s words are poetic and lyrical while Smith’s illustrations are profound yet simple. Flipping through this book is an enlightening experience for any reader of any age.
This is a work that is simply well-crafted. It, no doubt, took time, care and planning to bring this volume together. And it works well. It enlightens while it simply engages a reader. Worthy of anybody’s few moments in a quiet corner to reflect over.
While this book may take place in a different time and place for many of us, it helps us understand a small section of the human condition a bit better. We relate to the little boy’s experience but we gain a simple understanding of what his father’s role was at that time. Enlightenment comes easy with this book.
If you were a boy in the mining towns of Cape Breton – or, indeed, a child in any mining town in the world – during the late 1800s and early 1900s, you might well have faced the prospect of going to work in the mines at the young age of nine or ten, enduring twelve-hour days in the harsh, dangerous and dark reality underground. Decades later, the life of these towns still revolved around the mines. Even into the 1950s, around the time when this story takes place, boys of high-school age, carrying on the traditions of their fathers and grandfathers, continued to see their future working in the mines.
This was the legacy of a mining town.
Town Is by the Sea is a great example of a great piece of literature, even though it is a ‘picture book.’ Joanne Schwartz’s words blend well together with Sydney Smith’s illustration to tell a unique story.
I don’t think there is a more versatile writer right now than JonArno Lawson. And certainly not one as dedicated to his craft. His new book children’s book – Uncle Holland – is coming out April 1 from Groundwood Books. And he is probably one of the most productive writers I know of this year . His listing of new titles is impressive. Lawson took some time out from his writing and editing to answer a few questions for me.
1)First off, could you give a bit of an outline of Uncle Holland?
In Uncle Holland, a young man who’s constantly getting into trouble with the law – he steals things – is finally given a choice between jail and the army. He chooses the army, and finds an unlikely way to make something positive out of his new environment.
2)In reading the descriptions that Groundwood Books has for Uncle Holland, I gather that you have a personal connection with this story. Is that the case? What are you hoping – if anything – that Uncle Holland will accomplish?
Uncle Holland is based on my actual Uncle Holland, who died before I was born. In real life, he did get into a lot of trouble – and he really did start out in the army, but he became a jeweler afterwards. I was only guessing that he joined the army (in the 1930s) because of legal problems, but in the fall I asked his big sister, my Aunt Jean (who turns 100 this year!) why Holland joined up and she said “I don’t know – he was in some kind of trouble, but I can’t remember what”.So it was a good guess!
I hope the story conveys that it’s possible to find new and unexpected ways of moving forward, even under the most constraining circumstances. The Army might represent any kind of problem – in a way, school is like the army for children – you’re forced to go and you have to struggle all the time with pressures to conform.
3)How long did it take to write Uncle Holland? Was it an easy or difficult book to write?
I wrote Uncle Holland almost ten years ago – I wrote and illustrated the first version in one morning, as a self-challenge, at my favourite coffee shop (which no longer exists – it was called ToGo, at Yonge Street and Shaftesbury Avenue in Toronto – I still miss it) . My daughter’s kindergarten teacher wanted every parent to come in and read a book to the class at some point during the year, so when it was my day I thought – I’m supposed to be a children’s book writer – why don’t I see if I can come up with a story and pictures all at once on the day I’m supposed to present?So I did – it was very exciting – it created a lot of pressure. I used my Uncle Holland as the main character, and a few details of his life, to save myself the trouble of inventing everything on the spot.
The story went over well with my daughter’s class, but I never really thought about publishing it. For fun, I showed it to Sheila Barry, who was my editor at Kids Can Press in those days. I wasn’t submitting it, just showing it to her because I liked the way my parrots came out – and she thought it was funny, but again, we never talked about it as a book. Then a few years ago she said she was still thinking about the story and wanted to look at it again. It needed a little editing, there were a few inconsistencies, and odd phrasings, but it pretty much stayed as it was.
4) The illustrator Natalie Nelson has agreed to do a Q&A for me but I was curious to hear how you two connected?
Sheila was working with Natalie on a book to do with Flannery O’Connor by Acree Macam. I love Flannery O’Connor’s work too – so that was immediately interesting to me. Sheila showed me Natalie’s pictures and said she thought she’d be perfect for Uncle Holland, and I agreed, completely!
4)I know you are busy with other books right now but are you planning any discussions/signings/etc. in relation with Uncle Holland?
There aren’t any plans for it at the moment. I wish Natalie and I could meet up to do some kind of event together – she and Sheila and I had an interesting exchange about how to talk about army life (and the point of armies) in the classroom, because that question had already come up for Natalie in a presentation.
My father was in the army too, and so was one of my Aunts – a fair number of my cousins have been as well – so it’s something I’ve thought a lot about.
5)Many of my followers use social media to track events that their favourite writers/illustrators may be involved with. You posted on your Facebook profile that you won’t be on FB for the “next long while.” Any idea how long that will be?
I’m not sure. . .I’m just checking in once a week or so now (that’s what I’ve done over the past few weeks). Some people seem to be good at using social media in a thoughtful, responsible way, but I find I just keep getting sucked in, and not using it productively at all. So I had my daughter change my Facebook password (I don’t know what it is anymore), which means that now I can only go in by request. I’ve felt much, much happier since. Not only were the posts distracting and often upsetting to me, but the sense of badly used time made me feel doubly awful.Spending five or ten minutes on it once a week seems the best solution for me.
6)In your last Q&A with me, you listed a number of projects that you are working on for this year. What is the next item you will be releasing for publication?
I regret everything came out two weeks ago with espresso books. (Link to their website) That was exciting for me – they did a lovely job with it. The next one to come out is a non-fiction book with Wolsak & Wynn publishers, about playing cross-culturally with children. The title (as of now) is But it’s so silly: a cross-cultural collage of nonsense, play, and poetry. That should be out in August. And after that is Leap!, in the fall, a picture book with a poem as its text, with Kids Can Press, illustrated by Josee Bisaillon. So a busy year ahead. . .
Thank you for the opportunity to talk about the new book, Steven! I appreciate it.
Thanks for answering these questions JonArno! I know my followers appreciate your time and your writing!
Sydney Smith is a very busy illustrator and a very dedicated one. Since the release of “Sidewalk Flowers” a few years ago, he has enchanted book-fans young and young-at-heart with his work. Now in 2017, he has a couple of new releases coming out and he took a few moments to answer a few questions for me about those works.
1) First off, could you give a bit of an outline for “Town Is by the Sea?”
“Town Is by the Sea” is a picture book written by Joanne Schwartz, published by Groundwood Books and illustrated by me! The story is a day in the life of a boy who lives in a mining town by the sea. As he describes his day he reflects on the sea and his father who is working below it in the mine. There is a beautiful rhythm to Joanne’s text and there is plenty of room for the illustrations to play.
2) Am I right in assuming that you hailing from Nova Scotia that working on this book would have a special meaning for you?
Both Joanne and I come from Nova Scotia. I have been wanting to work on something about home for a while, especially since moving to Toronto. I miss so much about the east coast and this book gave me the opportunity go back and bask in all of the things that make my home so unique and special.
3) How long did it take you to create the illustrations for “Town Is by the Sea?” How did you get involved in illustrating it?
Sheila Barry, the wonderful editor from Groundwood Books brought the story to my attention two years ago. I had a lot on my plate at the time but I was so excited about the project that I started thinking about it far in advance of working on it. My process is never efficient and I can get lost down rabbit holes so I ended up with a lot of versions of each image. If I felt like something wasn’t working so I wouldn’t sleep until I took another swing at it.
4) I know many people living here in Ontario who have originated from Atlantic Canada are always eager to explain to their children what life is like on the eastern region of the country. Is that something you are hoping this book will aid in doing?
What I like about this story is that you could say it’s about growing up in the late ’50’s in a mining town in Cape Breton but you could also say its just about being young. The writing captures this and I wanted the illustrations to do the same thing. Relatively few people know what its like to grow up in a mining town but if you can show personal and human moments that we all share than it doesn’t matter where or when the story takes place. Everyone shares the same type of moments through time. Looking at your own reflection in a puddle, looking at dust in a beam of sunlight, hearing the wind in the trees. Putting poetic details of personal yet universal moments in a story makes it relatable no matter how foreign the setting is. Boiled down it is a story about a human, beautiful and complicated.
5) “Sidewalk Flowers” was a very popular book in my circle of readers. Are there any noticeable similarities/differences you found on working on the two books?
I think there are a lot of similarities. There is a depth to the main character. A quietness and a seriousness. This book is kind of heavier than “Sidewalk Flowers.” I showed the story to a group at a workshop recently and when I finished there was a moment of silence. I hope just meant that there was a lot to take in.
6) I know it is a bit of time before the release of “Town Is by the Sea” but is there a book tour being planned for it?
There is a book launch planned for mid-March in Halifax and there will also be a release in Toronto around the same time. I’d be happy to go anywhere people are interested with this book. I’m really excited to share it.
I’m still useless at social media. That hasn’t changed. I’m always happy to hear from any fans out there. It makes me feel good and lifts me up when people tell me they like my work. I think one of the hazards of working by yourself is that you can lose sight of whether the work is reaching people or if its any good at all. On the really dark days I just go for a walk to the (Art Gallery of Ontario) or to Allen Gardens. Try to surround myself with beauty. Sometimes it takes some time for me get back to people and sometimes i don’t see their messages because Facebook hides them on me. Oops. Sorry about that.
8) You have been busy with a few items since our last conversation. Are you working on anything new right now? If yes, are there details you care to share?
I am finishing up illustrating my last book before I take some time to focus on some of my own projects that have been waiting patiently for the past few years. I can’t really say too much about those personal projects because they are still being chiseled and shaped. But I am excited. I love collaborating with other people, and I’m sure I will work with other writers again soon but i need to see this through right now.
The book I am finishing up is called “Smoot,” written by Michelle Cuervas, published by Dial Books and its a very fun story about a boy and his shadow, Smoot, who decides to separate and have an adventure of his own. I really like this story and working with Lauri Hornik and Lily Malcolm from Dial is such a pleasure. (Link to Penguin Random House Canada’s website for “Smoot”)
It is difficult to imagine a poet bringing a story to life without words. And it hard for us adults to imagine being moved by such a story in a book form. But JonArno Lawson and Sydney Smith have created such a book with Sidewalk Flowers. In it, they remind us how the world appears through the eyes of a child which is something we adults have forgotten and need to learn again.
“Sidewalk Flowers is about a walk I took with my daughter through Toronto, seven years ago, as we headed home to my wife and two little sons. It’s about how she found flowers, and then gave them away very unselfconsciously,” JonArno Lawson told me in a Q&A recently and left it to that. (Link to that Q&A here) But both he and Sydney Smith have crafted a much deeper narrative with this book. We follow a little girl and her father on a walk through a black-and-white urban landscape. As we follow them, items in the little girl’s vision come to colour; her red coat, fruits in a seller’s stand, a vibrant pattern in a passerby’s dress, and so on. Eventually what comes to the forefront are sidewalk flowers she busily picks while her father is absorbed in more worldly and mundane matters.
As we follow their journey further, other items come into the little girl’s vision; a dead bird, someone sleeping on a bench, etc. She deposits each one of her flowers on each of her observations, bringing attention and a little innocent joy to the world around her. Even as she takes her father’s hand as they walk in through a park, she deposits a few of her flowers, adding colour to the world.
While catalogued as a children’s book, Sidewalk Flowers by JonArno Lawson and Sydney Smith provides a wordless message to both the young and old. A great read and a great item to ponder upon afterwards.