Town Is by the Sea

Do you remember The White Cat and the Monk?  It’s possible you don’t, so I won’t mind at all if you take a moment to refresh your memory, paying particular attention to the wonderful illustrations by Sydney Smith.

Well, today I happened to have a few minutes to spare while I was waiting to meet a friend in Harvard Square, so I happened to saunter into the Harvard Book Store, and I happened to end up in the picture book section where I happened across this book: Town Is by the Sea, by Joanne Schwartz, illustrated by the said Sydney Smith.  And then I happened to find myself at the cash register, buying it.  That sort of thing happens to happen.

Town Is by the Sea.jpg

Dear readers, I have so much work to do, but I couldn’t resist telling you about this book, so bear with me if I rhapsodize a little and turn a bit Canadian on you.  I’ll be brief.

Have you read any stories by Alistair MacLeod, the great Canadian novelist and short story author?  If you haven’t, I’m really, terribly sorry.  Start with any of his short stories– I remember enjoying his collection Island.  If you have, believe me when I say that if Alistair MacLeod had written a picture book, it would have been something like this one, and that’s about as high a compliment as I can pay anyone.  This book shares his literary qualities: it has the same beautiful blurring of light and dark, joy and sadness you find in his work: not something you normally expect to find in a children’s picture book, and requiring extra skill to navigate without completely bypassing a child’s comprehension.  Joanne Schwartz, originally from Cape Breton and now living in Toronto, has that extra skill.

Let me tell you a little bit about Town Is by the Sea.  First of all, it’s a Cape Breton story, dealing with the sea and with the coal mines.  It’s told from the perspective of a little boy running through his summer day: all day he enjoys the sun sparkling on the sea while his father is deep in the darkness of the mines.  There are moments of homelike peace (his lunch, the chicken stew for supper), and moments of childlike joy (swinging with his friend at the ramshackle playground).

And there’s poetry.  Take the opening: “From my house I can see the sea.  It goes like this– house, road, grassy cliff, sea.”  Read that aloud and tell me that Joanne Schwartz wasn’t paying some attention to the cadence of her words.  Apparently she’s a children’s librarian, and I swear it comes through; she has the ear of someone who’s read lots of children’s books aloud in her day.  That poetry of sound binds together the book, both the light of the boy’s day and the darkness of the father’s, and then, at the end of the day, the peace of the family sitting together, overlooking the sea.  Until the ending: “I think about the sea, and I think about my father.  I think about the bright days of summer and the dark tunnels underground.  One day, it will be my turn.  I’m a miner’s son.  In my town, that’s the way it goes.”

I swear I choked up when I was reading that to the Changeling.  Times turned and things changed, but, as the author’s note at the end of the book says, “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.”  And we know how dark, grueling, and unhealthy that work was.

If the poetry of the language draws together the light and dark of the book, the illustrations both delicately highlight the distinctions and pull the book together into a harmonious whole.  Sydney Smith was the ideal illustrator for this task: his rough, sketchy style deliberately resists romanticizing the scenes he’s depicting, and his palette for the home scenes is even a little muted, I could even say drab– until he gets to the sea and the flowers at the grave of the boy’s grandfather.  Those stand out in warm colour.  The mining scenes, by contrast, are completely, unapologetically dark.  Black, relieved only by the light from the miner’s helmets.  And yet, even the muted home scenes and the black mines have a beauty under his brush (“ink, watercolor, and a bit of gouache,” according to the book’s notes).

Altogether, then, this is a book of genius.  This tender, but unrelentingly realistic, Canadian story is not just for Canadians, and I was thrilled to see it in a Boston store.  It’s a story for anyone who’s grown up by the sea, or loves the sea.  It’s a story for anyone who knows the grim story behind a coal mine.  It’s a story for any child who misses a parent at work.  It’s a story for anyone who loves to see the beauty emerge from a realistic story.  It’s Hard Times or North and South, but aimed at children.

My recommendation?  Grab some Alistair MacLeod for yourself and a copy of Town Is by the Sea for your children, then go for a vacation to Cape Breton, or, if you can’t make it to Cape Breton, a seashore of your choice.  And then lie on the sand and read.  Enjoy.

(Note: This book was way too old for the Changeling, who’s nearly four years old, although she enjoyed it.  I just read it to her because I wanted to read it aloud and hear the words sing.  I think six or seven might be a better age for this book, or, of course, just read it for yourself.  I’m thirty, and it was perfect for me!)

Some Books

Dear Readers, today was a blend of the awful and the great.  The “awful” began early with a dentist appointment.  There are those who can face the dentist with equanimity; I am not of their number.  I remember once, in my youth, when I allowed someone to talk me into a waxing appointment.  As the hot wax was being poured onto, then yanked off of, my skin I told myself, “At least I’m not at the dentist.”

The “great” came right afterward: I had to do some shopping in Brookline, and that means that I could also go to the Children’s Book Shop!  Any excuse to go there is acceptable to me, and I did my errands like a good Mummy and then relaxed with wonderful books, new and old.  And as I was checking out the owner asked me, “Did Sheryl tell you the news?”  News?  We were back to the “awful”– it turns out that Sheryl had to move back home for excellent reasons which nevertheless are sad to me.  Sheryl, you see, has never been mentioned by name here, but her wisdom and perceptiveness guided me to some of the very best books I’ve talked about here: The Hired GirlA Child of Books, and many others.  Basically, if you’ve ever looked at one of my posts and said, “I like the sound of that book,” you may well have Sheryl to thank.  So let’s take a moment to pause and say “Thank you” to the great booksellers who link readers with good books.  Thanks, Sheryl, and I hope lucky stars shine on all you undertake.  The Children’s Book Shop just won’t be the same without your smile and unerring ability to say, “I have just the thing for you…”

But, back to the “great,” I came back with some really good books, so let’s skim through them.  We won’t go into great depth, but I really want to share some of the best books I’ve found over the past few months, and especially today’s haul:

The Way Home in the Night.jpg

I snapped up The Way Home in the Nightby Akiko Miyakoshi as soon as I saw it (at the Harvard Book Store, actually).  Akiko Miyakoshi is the author of The Tea Party in the Woods which we talked about long ago.  It features the same exquisite art: dark charcoal backgrounds with the occasional splash of colour enlivening the page (she works in pencil, charcoal, and gouache).  The story is simple: a young rabbit is being carried home to bed and watches night take over his neighbourhood as he goes along home.  The glimpses of other homes are enchanting: a phone call, a hug goodbye, a pie in the oven.  But our focus always returns to the young rabbit who finally, sleepily, bids us all goodnight.  It’s sweet without being saccharine, it’s charming without being unrealistic.  And, in an era where it sometimes seems to me that bookshelves are creaking with the weight of the “goodnight” stories being produced, this one is truly, exquisitely original, both in art and in the story being told.  I loved reading it to the Changeling last night, and I strongly recommend that you give it a try, too.

Alfie Wins a Prize.jpg

Do you know Shirley Hughes’s Alfie and Annie Rose books?  This is one of them: Alfie Wins a Prize.  It’s one of the injustices of the world, to my mind, that there are children out there who don’t have even one little Alfie story.  The Alfie books in general are simple stories bursting with realism: as the owner of the Children’s Book Shop once told me, “The thing about Shirley Hughes is that she knows how to draw children.”  This is true, both of her words and of her art.  In this story, happily discovered at the Children’s Book Shop this afternoon, Alfie enters a painting into the children’s art contest at the Harvest Fair.  He wins third place and is very happy, but he swaps his bubble bath prize with the little girl who was miserable about the “consolation prize” (a humorously described, sad-looking stuffed animal) she was given. The brilliance of this story is in what Shirley Hughes doesn’t say: she doesn’t make a whole moralizing bow-wow about sharing what you have to make others happy.  She doesn’t say that Alfie felt sorry for the deformed sheep or goat (no one can tell which it is) stuffy and wanted to make it feel wanted.  But it all comes through: Alfie’s sympathy for both girl and stuffed animal are heart-warming.  In her true-to-life descriptions, art, and stories Shirley Hughes reminds me of no one so much as Ezra Jack Keats, and I wish she were as well-known in the USA.

Big Cat little cat.jpg

Now for an author and illustrator completely new to me: Big Cat, little cat by Elisha Cooper.  I snapped this up at the bookstore today because I saw cats and I thought of the Changeling.  She and I bond over our shared love of cats.  What I didn’t expect, as I stood in the store flipping through the pages, was that it would bring me to the edge of tears.  You see, this is the story of a cat who lives alone, but then a kitten joins him.  The kitten grows and grows and becomes friendly with the cat.  However, the cat also grows older and older… and one day isn’t there any longer.  (Get yourself a kleenex.)  The text simply says, “And that was hard.”  (Yup, that’s when my eyes started to feel a little funny.)  And the kitten, now a cat, is very sad.  Until one day… along comes a kitten!  Well.  This was our goodnight story tonight, and the Changeling was as entranced by the beautiful black and white illustrations as I was, and cooed over each little pose: the older cats training the kittens to eat, drink, use the litter box, and cuddle and rest.  This book tells any reader, cat-lover or not, about the cycle of life, love, and trust.  It tells you of the pain you suffer when someone you love is gone, and of the joy you can find in welcoming someone new into your family.  It’s beautiful, heart-wrenching, and heart-warming.  Toddlers and up will love the illustrations, and adults will fully appreciate the life-cycle.  In other words, I think this is definitely an “all ages” type of book.

And those are three books to occupy you until I find the time to come back again!  Enjoy!