Town is By The Sea – Perfect Picture Book Friday

Spread the love

Title:  Town is by the Sea

Author: Joanne Schwartz

Illustrator: Sydney Smith

Publisher: Groundwood Books, 2017

Ages: 5-8


Themes: under the sea mining, Cape Breton, coal towns, dangerous jobs, historical fiction


From my house I can see the sea.

It goes like this—house, road, grassy cliff, sea.


A young boy wakes up to the sound of the sea, visits his grandfather’s grave after lunch and comes home to a simple family dinner with his family, but all the while his mind strays to his father digging for coal deep down under the sea.

Why I like this book:

This is a gem of a story, both the text and illustrations. Set in the 50’s, in a Cape Breton mining town by the sea, this simple story of a boy and his family’s day to day life, with its ever present dangers is haunting and moving.

The patterns of repeated phrases and scenes, and the dominating presence of the ocean in all its moods is somehow mystical and concrete at the same time. The author and illustrator achieve this with this simple slice of life text, with moments playing on the broken swings and visiting grandad’s grave with a sea view (also a minor, of course).

The seamless continuity of life (and death) is reinforced towards the ends with the words:

I think about the bright days of summer                                                                                         and the dark tunnels underground.                                                                                                   One day, it will be my turn.          

I’m a minor’s son.                                                                                                                                     In my town, that’s the way it goes.

The artwork is evocative. Five full double paged spreads mostly black, deep under the sea. Through the day the boy is aware that “deep down under that sea, my father is digging for coal.” This repeated phrase accompanies the black spreads, the last underwater one in which the father and his colleagues are no longer visible.

 Beautiful double paged watercolor seascapes. My favorite four panels on the two pages, wordless, watching the slow movement of afternoon sun through the kitchen door as the boy waits for the return of his dad.

This is a beautiful Canadian picture book that I hope wins awards in and outside of its country.

I would buy this as a gift for adults, I love it that much!


Do check out my interview with the author here. 

I would love to see a book like this used on a unit about oceans.

Any unit on child labor at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries, could include this book.

Art classes looking at the use of light and dark, could use this art work.

While not based on mining at sea, three historical fiction chapter books that could be read with Town by the Sea are:

  • IN COAL COUNTRY by Judith Hendershot. Illustrated by Thomas B. Allen. Unpaged. (Ages 5 to 10)
  • TROUBLE AT THE MINES by Doreen Rappaport. Illustrated by Joan Sandin. (Ages 8 to 12)
  • A BIRD ON ATER STREET by Elizabeth O. Dulemba (Ages 8 to 12)

 Find more “Perfect Picture Book Friday” reviews at Susanna Leonard Hill’s blog HERE.


This entry was posted in Perfect Picture Book Friday and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Town is By The Sea – Perfect Picture Book Friday

  1. It’s not an easy future the little boy in the story has to look forward to. After reading your touching review, I’m sure this is a picture book I will enjoy reading. I especially enjoyed the link you provided to the interview with the illustrator. Getting a peek at Sydney Smith’s work process was fascinating. Thank you for sharing this.

    • Joanna says:

      It’s an unusual theme for a picture book, but I appreciate the sensitive approach. All kids can get something out of the concerns of the young boy, but those whose parents are in dangerous professions will be especially touched.

  2. Sue Morris says:

    I have no doubts this book is gorgeous. I just watched a YouTube trailer from Walker Books on Footpath Flowers (UK version of Sidewalk Flowers). It is unbelievably fantastic. I do wonder, how does an author “write” a manuscript for a wordless picture book? I’m seriously curioius to know.

    • Joanna says:

      I will have to seek out this trailer. Sue my same curiosity lead me to ask Syd in the interview about how he approached being the illustrator of Sidewalk Flowers.

  3. I saw this book recently, but didn’t connect it with the fascinating interview you did with Sydney Smith this week. It’s a beautiful book and story. I can’t imagine what it was like to be a coal miner’s child — so much uncertainty. I love the ending of the book and resolution that someday it will be his turn. I encourage others read your interview with Sydney.

  4. Your passion for this book is contagious. It doesn’t sound like a book which is going to catch people’s attention unless we spread the word, but it does sound lovely and well-crafted. As a child from a mining family, this definitely appeals to me. Thanks.

  5. Joanna says:

    Oh, Joanne, you will have a particular sensitivity to this story. I would love to hear what you think when you have read it.

    I do think the art work helps to grab people’s attention. The text is wonderful.

  6. This sounds amazing! On my list – thanks for sharing!

  7. Joanna, this is a very interesting book. I’ll also add it to my library list. Thank you for featuring this and interviewing the author.

  8. I has an unusually dark feel for a pb, but the slice of life family moment is appealing as are the illustrations. Thanks Joanna.

  9. Patricia Nozell says:

    I love Groundwood Books picks, and this one sounds like a wonderful story with gorgeous illustrations. I’ll be on the lookout for it. Thanks for a great review!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.