Tag Archive for Smith Sydney

Small in the City by Sydney Smith

small in the cityPicture 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

Harold’s Hungry Eyes Blog Tour

In literary agent Jonny Geller’s TED talk about what makes a bestselling book, he talks about five key components, one of which is resonance.

Resonance is exactly what it says on the tin – what resonates for you about a story? Of course we’re all wired differently – what resonates for me in a novel won’t be the same as for you. As a reader I bring my own experiences, memories and feelings to a book as I read it.

For children just starting out in the world, what resonates for them? One of my children has had the same weekly piece of homework all year:

‘Look out the window’.

What does a child see when they look out the window? What resonates for them? It will be different for each one, even those looking at the same view. So, to help with this today, and as part of the Harold’s Hungry Eyes blog tour, I have three books that take the world around us, and make different shapes from it – what do you see in the world around you that resonates for you?

Harolds Hungry Eyes 2d

Harold’s Hungry Eyes by Kevin Waldron

This adorable picture book follows a food-obsessed boston terrier called Harold as he searches New York for his missing favourite chair. Harold’s eye view of the city is very much his own. Although he sees a typical mail box, a yellow school bus, a clock on a building and a chained bicycle, to his eyes they are different. The mail box is an oven with roast chicken inside, the school bus a chunk of cheese, the clock a pie and the bicycle wheels two pretzels.

Kevin Waldron cleverly manages to combine an everyman’s depiction of the city as bustling, busy and daunting, with Harold’s viewpoint of seeing food everywhere. Waldron does this physically – denoting the city with black line drawings and colour block, and then collage-style layering the image with photographs of food. It’s effective and different.

Harold isn’t a cute dog, but he has the reader’s sympathy from the outset with his large black eyes making eye contact with the reader from page one, and he grabs the child’s empathy by seeing the traffic lights as ice creams on the title page. His innermost dreams are exposed to the reader from early on – choc ice vehicles, raspberry fire hydrants, and my absolute favourite – toaster buildings.

But New York is also a character here – the setting itself depicted in shadows and lines with its distinctive look and multitude of busy busy people, which combines to project a sense of loss and loneliness common to small beings in big cities.

Harold’s insatiable hunger is the driving force behind the plot and the narrative though, and children will delight in the wafer staircase and croissant couch at the uplifting ending.

I have one copy of Harold’s Hungry Eyes to give away (UK only). See @minervamoan on twitter for the giveaway. And click here to buy.

the cloudspotter

Even if you don’t see food in buildings, you have almost certainly played shapeshifters with clouds. The Cloudspotter by Tom McLaughlin is another tale of loneliness, although again the protagonist isn’t aware of it. Our small boy is a dreamer, seeing stories and emotions hidden with the clouds. When a dog comes to join in the fun, the boy is irritated at the intrusion but before long comes to understand that a cloud shared is happier than a story told to oneself only.

Tom McLaughlin also uses a special type of layering to create his illustrations here – the illusion of the clouds making stories – and the paint really does look like clouds – with a layer of greyed line illustration on top to show how the boy, and then the dog interact within the cloud story.

The clouds morph into everything – from castles in the sky to musical instruments, and even bones. Reminiscent of Oliver Jeffers’ Lost and Found – in which the boy (also in a stripy jumper) doesn’t realise that the animal is after friendship, The Cloudspotter depicts our hero with glasses, and boldly enjoying his solitude, which as Tom Hanks delightfully pointed out last week in Desert Island Discs, isn’t the same as loneliness.

Fabulous for leading children into the world of seeing shapes in the clouds, and using imagination to turn the view out of the window into an adventure. You can buy it here.

footpath flowers

One more, which like Harold’s Hungry Eyes, places the city as more than a setting – perhaps even a character in its own right – is Footpath Flowers by Jon Arno Lawson and Sydney Smith. A girl (in red) whilst all else is in black and white – yes an oft-used device – gathers flowers while her distracted father walks her through the city. Incidences of colour pop up, the fruit at the grocer’s, the yellow cabs, and of course the flowers that the girl collects.

As they wend through the city, she gives out flowers too, and each gift is transformative in some way – showing the power of giving, and of small gestures, and joy in natural things.

Whilst the father is distracted, he lets the child stop and gather flowers, and holds her hand. He is a supportive parent, as seen by his careful smile on the cover.

The book is wordless – the pictures alone – graphic novel style – tell the story. It’s a modern story – the father is pictured on his phone, the people at the bus stop are a diverse mix, there are runners in the park. But what is truly exemplary about this book is the juxtaposition of the facelessness of the city with the stamp of the individual.

Each page can be devoured for its subtle depiction of individuals lives within a city as a whole – what are the people doing sitting in the back of the open truck? What do the birds see from their perch above the road? From different angles, with different elements of colour, this is an intriguing picture book – and one that carries a simple yet effective message.

My favourite moments, those which resonated for me, – the hug between mother and child – and the mother’s stance looking at her children in the garden – this last image fascinating for the fact that the illustrator has purposefully cut the picture so that the reader can’t see the mother’s eyes, nor the child in red as she is walking out the picture. Read it and draw your own conclusions; it certainly presents different viewpoints outside the window. You can buy it here.

Please note this title is called Sidewalk Flowers in the United States.

 

If you like Harold’s Hungry Eyes by Kevin Waldron, then you can download the screen saver here and activity here.