Title: Town is by the Sea
Author: Joanne Schwartz
Illustrator: Sydney Smith
Publisher: Groundwood Books, 2017
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.