Picture books are often banded together as if they were a simple genre. But even in one quick thirty-minute book club session at school, I can show my Year 6 cohort that picture books come in all shapes and sizes, are aimed at all different ages, can be about a multitude of topics, and really shouldn’t be all lumped together in a kinderbox. And really great picture books manage to traverse these different categories all in one book.
Small in the City by Sydney Smith (winner of the Kate Greenaway in 2018 for Town is by the Sea, and winner of many awards for Sidewalk Flowers) is ostensibly the travails of a small child in a big city. But delve within, and it’s a picture book about loss.
A small child, first seen on a bus, as on the front cover, travels into a large city, depicted with large steel skyscrapers, traffic, and many people. Wordless at first, the text begins a few pages in with Small’s voice, and at first the reader may believe that Small is talking to them, explaining the noise of the city and the busyness. But it very gradually becomes apparent that this internal monologue is not to you, the reader, but to a missing cat.
The text is observational but also advisory – explaining that the child feels empathy for the lost pet, and wants to guide them home with hope and clarity. The text initially feels as if it is advising the navigation of a big city, but it also merges with advice on life itself; beware of big dogs, look for friendly faces.
After a time, the reader sees that the child is putting up pink posters all over the city for the missing cat (readers will have to look back through the book to see where they missed this first time round), the cleverness of the child apparent in where the posters are placed – a fishmonger, for example.
But it is the cleverness of the illustrator that really shines through here. The child is an everychild – anonymous and gender-less, mainly seen from behind, or when straight on, with a body wrapped up against the cold, head-down. The city too is faceless – this could be any global metropolis.
The illustrations show Smith’s astuteness at perspective – the smallness of Small against the backdrop of skyscrapers, traffic, other people, construction works and telephone poles, even pointing towards the fact that taller adults might feel small against the enormity of the anonymous busy city. And with the search for something, there is an added dimension to the smallness, as if the loss of another can diminish a person and make them feel smaller anyway.
There are close ups, use of a wider lens, all capturing the intimidating nature of the city. This is not claustrophobic, but rather atmospheric. Dangers are implied rather than seen in desolate dark alleys. All angles are covered – looking up, looking down, looking out from a bus. Darkness is all around, and ever approaching as the day draws in – there are black shadows that dominate a vignette, stark plant shapes against a criss-cross window, an extreme close up of a traffic signal, mainly black in its squareness.
But conversely there’s an interesting growing familiarity with the city. Initially, the reader may feel as if the child might be lost – their smallness an indicator of their lack of direction, but this child demonstrates a knowledge of the city – as if they have been searching a long time or repeatedly, or perhaps it is their home town. Yet, the feeling of smallness persists – the city is held at a distance, the child is shut out. The church in which the choir practises is seen only from outside, the person who always plays the piano in the blue house is also anonymous, seen from behind, glimpsed blurrily through the window.
Even the reader is kept at a slight distance – there’s an amazing illustration of the child reflected in a series of mirrored glass panels on a building, the pastel traffic reflected behind, and a slight distortion of the image in the mirrors, the slight wobble that feels both real and haunting. More brilliance in the picture of the child on the bus; the close-up of a woman’s hand on the rail near the child, too close for comfort; the reflection of the city in the window of the bus, as well as the view through the bus to the city the other side, and the silhouettes of adults standing on the bus.
The day may start cold and sunny, but as the child moves through the pages, snow begins to fall. Now the picture blurs again as the streets are seen through increasing snow, red taillights standing out, sleet tyre marks on the road.
So then the illustrator’s detailed knowledge of the city appears – the child is shown positioning their back against the warmth exhalation of a dryer vent.
The text is shut off from the pictures – Small in the city is also alone in the city. Text appears only in the white gaps between the pictures, the illustrations themselves separate within hard black ink frames, locked apart from each other. There’s isolation here, and acute poignancy.
And yet there’s a juxtaposition between the griminess of the city, the urbanity of it, and the child’s calm pace and advice, and the peaceful hush as the snow falls. The lack of panic and anxiety, and the gentle determination of Small. As the blizzard blurs and the darkness increases, the heartfelt loss of the child is what’s felt, until towards the end there’s a glorious illustration of the child walking towards a female adult, with matching bobble hat signifying their kinship, and then Small’s confident resignation in the arms of a comforting adult.
The brilliance of course, is that although the book is about a missing pet, a child in a city, it’s also about the devastation of loss, the moments of waiting, the anticipation of return. Adults will see the emotional depth, young children will look for the pink posters, the hint of a cat, the draw of the city, and those in between will marvel at the detail in the artworks, the intelligence of the text. Most will notice the packaging of this tall book – a skyscraper itself.
Reassured, the final page gives a resolution, but the heartfelt haunting of this wintry book never quite dissipates. Exceptional. You can buy it here.
With thanks to Walker Books for the review copy