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Review of the Day: Small in the City by Sydney Smith

It doesn’t come up all that often that I have to review a picture book without giving away too much. Picture books are short by nature, and while they often contain twist endings, there are relatively few that draw out their endings in slow, patient reveals. But then, I don’t suppose that there are many picture books out there quite like Sydney Smith’s Small in the City. Recently I had the pleasure of presenting alongside Mr. Smith at an event for booksellers. To best describe this work, Mr. Smith decided that he would read the book in its entirety at each bookseller table. And so, seven times over, at seven different tables, in his calm, Canadian voice, Mr. Smith read to the grown-ups. And seven times over, at seven different tables, I found myself tearing up. Maybe it was the fact that there was an element to this book that I identified with closely. Maybe it was Mr. Smith’s voice, filled with infinite patience. Or maybe it was the fact that I recognized over and over, again and again, the sheer artistry necessary for Mr. Smith to pull off this book. Small in the City is just that. It is not flashy or gaudy or loud. It is quiet and serious and oh-so very beautiful. Beautiful right down to its little paper soul. Once in a while, a reviewer gets to talk about a modern day classic. Today, I am that reviewer, and this is that book.

“I know what it’s like to be small in the city.” A child rides a city bus, gets off, and begins a long walk. As they do so, they comment to someone, unseen. “People don’t see you and loud sounds can scare you, and knowing what to do is hard sometimes.” The city is a bustling, lively place, but the child walks on, past sketchy alleys, mean dogs, parks, snowflakes, and vents. “But home is safe and quiet.” The child returns and we see what drew them out. What it is that they are looking for and haven’t found. But at home there is a mom and warm arms and this: “But I know you. You will be all right.”

Okay. I don’t usually do this, but I think we need to start off here by talking seriously about this book’s cover. I say this because it’s one of those book jackets that will fail to draw sufficient attention to itself on a first glance. The colors? There are some spots of red here and there, but for the most part it’s pretty subdued. Anyone who has ever lived in a major metropolis will instantly recognize the presence of what I would like to call public transit gray. It was only when I looked just a little deeper that I began to realize what Smith was up to. Holy moly. Consider this: In this picture you have the glass of the bus, where you can see our main character sitting inside. You can see past the child into the bus, where there are silhouettes of the adults standing in the aisle. You can see out the other side of the bus, through the opposite window, to a sign and some telephone poles. Cool, right? I’m not done. You can also see reflections on the glass that is between you and the child, reflecting the city buildings and cars that would be behind you. And finally, and this is the kicker, (parse this sentence if you can) you can see that the reflections of the cars show that the cars themselves are reflecting red lights off of their own back windows. Essentially, this is Velázquez’s Las Meninas for the picture book set. And that’s only the cover of the book!

Inside, Smith sets his book against what I take to be a single hour of the day, in the winter, in Toronto. If a book is to be set in a city, then it should be true to its location. I lived in Manhattan for eleven years and over time I became a bit of an accuracy harpy whenever I saw a picture book set in NYC. Basically, if the subway system doesn’t connect in a logical way, I’m outta here. Sydney Smith is a denizen of Toronto, so it made sense for him to set his story against the backdrop of those cold, snowy Canadian streets. I have never been to Toronto, but there is not a drop of doubt in my veins that what you see on these pages is anything but the clearest, sheerest accuracy.

The day starts off sunny. You can see shadows where people walk. Then, as the child proceeds to walk, a light snowfall begins. You’d be forgiven for not noticing it, even as it obscures the setting sun, leaving cars to navigate in a blur of white and gray. Smith’s book is, in this way, a perfect accompaniment to Ezra Jack Keats’ The Snowy Day. Both books examine what it means to live in a busy metropolitan city in the wintertime and the snow. Both too somehow manage to show how beautiful ugly cities truly are. As in his previous book Sidewalk Flowers, the interplay between nature and concrete was integral to the storytelling. Here, there is a two-page wordless spread that consists entirely of three panels. The top panel is of trees and streetlamps and gathering snow. The second is of the tree alone, snow piling up on its branches. But the third is the one that kids from snowy lands will recognize on sight. It’s that moment when you stand beneath the sky and look up at the snow as it plummets towards you and all you can see, really, is the dark of the sky, and the fast falling flakes, too numerous to mention, surrounding you. Like you’re the only person in the world.

It was to my very great surprise that I discovered that this was the first book that Mr. Smith has both written and illustrated. Surprising for me because I was quite convinced that the book Town Is By the Sea was his and his alone. An apology to author Joanne Schwartz is in order, but I think I can be forgiven my confusion. In many ways this book couples with that one naturally. In both cases, Smith has indulged in his love of sequential art with a cinematic bent. In Town Is By the Sea he used wordless panels to show the passing of time late in the narrative. Here, four wordless panels depict four different foggy scenes seen out of a city bus window. On a first reading they seem pretty but superfluous. On a second, third, and fourth reading their intent is clearer. Someone is looking for something. And like Town Is By the Sea, the emotional gut-punch of the book is visual. In this case, it’s a two-page wordless sequence where the child reaches into a bag and takes something out. I read this book and I imagine teachers and librarians getting to that part. I imagine them asking kids what it is, and what it might mean. There is a method of reading called the Whole Book Approach, where adult readers involve child listeners, not simply as passive vessels into which to pour books, but active participants in the reading. This book was pretty much made for that that method of presentation.

Tonally, this book also matches Town Is By the Sea beat for beat as well. Considering the subject matter (which I refuse to give away) the main character should be riddled with anxiety. Instead, they’re separated from that emotion by the act of giving someone advice. That’s a great way to put some distance between yourself and a sad situation. The advice itself varies. Sometimes it is as far reaching as, “Alleys can be good shortcuts”, and sometimes it’s as specific as, “You could perch on a window ledge.” What never changes is that the child speaking isn’t insistent in any way. They say, “If you want, you could just come back.” They’re gentle. There are natural pauses between the sentences and in the page turns. I think it took me ten or twelve reads before I realized that the sentences in the book are the thoughts in the main character’s head as they walk along. And amazingly enough, the way Smith has written them, you realize that the wordless sequences would work less well if the sentences didn’t contain these natural pauses of their own. For a book of this sort to work, it must marry the text to the art without a bubble. There has to be a symbiosis where language and visual images lean on one another. And if you get it, the way this book gets it, you win.

There was one tiny image in the art that I found myself looking at again and again while I watched Sydney Smith read his book. I don’t know that you would necessarily notice it yourself. It’s not meant to draw your attention. On the page where you see an alleyway and the child says, “… don’t go down this alley. It’s too dark,” there is a tree. And on that tree, at the very tip of a branch, a single plastic bag blows in the breeze. The wind has caught it, but it’s stuck fast. Later, when the child climbs a black walnut tree, a second plastic bag hangs by a twig. It’s such a common sight in a city, but I can’t think of a single time I ever saw these trapped bags in a picture book. We’ve come to the end of the review now. I’m still not really going to give away what the book is truly about. I don’t think that I need to, though. Because if you’ve read this far then you know that it’s about tiny details like a bag in a tree, and the way that ink, watercolor, and gouache can convince you that you’re in an afternoon snowstorm in a busy city. You know it’s about pauses. Pauses in art. Pauses in text. What pauses like that mean. It is ultimately living out its title, this small, quiet, insistent, beautiful book. It is the best at what a picture book can and should do.

On shelves now.

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About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.

Comments

  1. I LOVE this book! Wonderful review, Betsy!

  2. Carl in Charlotte says:

    Look at that cover again, Betsy. If you’ll notice the spaces between the silhouettes of the standing adults form the shape of the child’s head. (or, more accurately, the shape of the child’s profile) And beyond that, there’s a shadow on a glass building that also reflects the shape of the child’s profile. Accidents? Judging from your review, I wouldn’t think so! Is Mr. Smith trying to say that small things are actually big and important things?
    Thanks for this review! I may never have noticed this book if you hadn’t told us. I’ve just requested a copy from another location and I can’t wit to read it!

  3. What a fantastic review you’ve taken the time to write! I am new to the Canadian picture book scene myself and could only dream of such a warm take on one’s work. Sydney’s book is stunning for a bunch of reasons, and having lived in T.O. I can tell you, that yes it does accurately depict Toronto’s lively cityscape.

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