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.
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”)
JonArno Lawson’s works has been endeared by both adults and children for it’s wit and whimsy. He has been a winner of numerous awards – including the Governor General’s award in 2015 for the illustrated children’s book Sidewalk Flowers. It was exciting for me to see that Lawson will be release a new collection called The Hobo’s Crowbar in October, 2016 and he answered a few questions about his new work here.
1) The Porcupine’s Quill’s website is calling The Hobo’s Crowbar a “collection of poems brimming with whimsical wordplay.” How would you describe it? What inspired you (if any) to write it?
The Hobo’s Crowbar was written in the way some of my other collections of poems have been written – mostly emerging out of sound ideas or just ideas that I jot down in my notebook as I think of them, and then explore or fill out later. There was no central idea, just a pile of poems that seemed large enough to make a book from after a few years! Someone told me years ago that bpNichol worked on many of his projects in a similar way – he had files for different manuscripts where he sorted his ideas and poems, and at a certain point he’d realize something was full enough, or finished enough, to make a book out of (if he was aiming for a book – in his case, it wasn’t always a book!). I liked that model of working, and I’ve tried to use the same method, though I think Nichol was probably more organized than I am.
2) The Hobo’s Crowbar is illustrated with woodcuts by Alec Dempster. (Click here for a link to his website) Was there much planning between the two of you for the book? How long did it take to create the book?
The oldest poems in the collection go back twenty years. But most were written after 2013. Alec showed me his work after he was done – he’s an amazing artist – I had no input as far as his images went. He came for dinner a few months ago, and brought the woodcut for the cover image to show me the actual size – they’re less than half the size of the images you see in the book. Very small. Which is funny, because the paper cuts he did for Down in the Bottom of the Bottom of the Box were larger than the images you see in that book. He’s full of surprises.
3) Will you be planning any sort of book/reading tour for The Hobo’s Crowbar? (Or even a public launch for the book?) If yes, are there events you are excited to be attending?
I’m going to be reading from The Hobo’s Crowbar at the Fog Lit festival in Saint John’s, New Brunswick, at the end of September. I don’t have anything else lined up, but it would be great to have some kind of launch in Toronto. Porcupine’s Quill is pretty wonderful about promoting their titles, so I’m pretty sure we’ll do something here.
4) You still seem to be keeping busy with Sidewalk Flowers. Do you have many public events upcoming for it? How do you feel about the success of it so far?
Sidewalk Flowers has had a great run. (Click for a link to my review) And it does still seem to be running, in part because the foreign editions are still coming out a few at a time. Right now it seems to be doing well in Germany – I was delighted when someone mentioned the fact I was half-named for German writer Arno Schirokauer in a radio review (on Radio Bremen). Sydney Smith (the illustrator) and I will be going to Ireland in mid-September to take part in the Children’s Books Ireland festival – we’re supposed to talk about our collaborative process at a session there. It seems every time I think nothing else could happen with the book, something else happens! At first it was wonderful, then I started to find it distracting from other work I was trying to do, now I’m just going with the flow – it’s all good. Time passes quickly and it’s silly not to enjoy the good things as they happen. I’m not great with the unexpected – my nature is more to enjoy watching than to enjoy being watched. But we all need some of both.
5) Are you working on anything new right now? If yes, are there details you care to share?
I’m working on a few different things. Mostly I’m working very hard to finish up a book about playing cross-culturally with children. It’s a non-fiction book. I have to have it finished enough for the publisher to start editing it by the end of July, so it’s pretty close now. I’ve been working on this book for ten years! So many interruptions. . .mostly my own. It will come out in 2017 with Wolsak & Wynn (a Hamilton-based publisher). It’s tentatively called “Around the World by TTC”.I’m also working on a children’s picture book with Montreal artist Nahid Kazemi. Later in the summer I’m starting on an Arabian Nights sort of story cycle – this is a big project, I have a lot of work (and reading) to do for it, completely different from anything else I’ve done, so it’s making me a little nervous (but exciting to think about too).
Writers I’ve discovered since last time! That’s a good question. . . I’ve become a very big fan of Alison Gopnik. Her books about babies and children are fascinating. She has a book that came out just now called “The Gardener and the Carpenter” – well worth reading. Mark Winston’s “Bee Time” is a great read. “On the Move”, by Oliver Sacks. I’m part way through Siddhartha Mukherjee’s book “The Gene: An Intimate History” – very entertaining. He’s a fine writer.
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.
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.
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.
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.