STARRED REVIEW
April 11, 2017

An evocative tale of family and sacrifice

By Joanne Schwartz, illustrated by Sydney Smith

Every now and then a picture book comes along that so eloquently captures a particular time and place that the story long lingers in your mind. This is such with Town Is by the Sea, the story of a young boy who lives by the sparkling sea in a Nova Scotia town in the 1950s, yet daily watches his father head to work in a mine deep below ground.

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Every now and then a picture book comes along that so eloquently captures a particular time and place that the story long lingers in your mind. This is such with Town Is by the Sea, the story of a young boy who lives by the sparkling sea in a Nova Scotia town in the 1950s, yet daily watches his father head to work in a mine deep below ground.

The author uses a refrain—“It goes like this”—to contrast the two worlds. On the one hand, the boy lives on a grassy cliff by the sea with his town spreading far and wide around him. His world is expansive, and much of his life is outdoors, where he visits the sea, “calm and quiet.” Illustrator Sydney Smith brings readers resplendent paintings of the sea, sun bouncing off the waves. It’s simply gorgeous. On the other hand is his father, deep underground at work. Author and illustrator pivot from spreads of a sun-drenched seaside town to spreads of dominating blackness: “And deep down under that sea, my father is digging for coal.” We barely see the men at the bottom of each of these spreads, hunched over and hard at work.

The boy is well aware of the sacrifices his father makes. There’s no sentimentality here, and the writing is tender and understated: The boy knows it’s his father’s work, and it was once his grandfather’s work. But he knows mining means his father must enter a world of darkness, foregoing the salt-tinged air and shimmering waters of the sea just to keep food on the table.

Then there’s supper, and his father is home, safe. “He looks tired, but he gives me a big smile and a hug.” The boy knows that it will one day be his turn to mine: “In my town, that’s the way it goes.” A closing author’s note adds a bit more information about such traditions in these mining towns.

It goes like this: This is one of the most beautiful picture books you’ll see this year. It’s picture book-making at its very best.

 

Julie Danielson features authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children’s literature blog.

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Town Is by the Sea

Town Is by the Sea

By Joanne Schwartz, illustrated by Sydney Smith
Groundwood
ISBN 9781554988716

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