Sydney Smith’s career started modestly, designing posters and album art on a budget for East Coast musician pals like Old Man Luedecke and Hey Rosetta! These days, Smith is poised to become the next star in kids’ book illustration, thanks to his latest project, Sidewalk Flowers, a wordless picture book with a story by Toronto poet JonArno Lawson. According to Smith’s publisher, Groundwood Books, the title has already sold in 10 international territories, and will appear in at least eight languages.
Did you always want to pursue children’s illustration? I went to NSCAD University in Halifax, where I took drawing and printmaking. I remember my mind was wandering during a first-year printmaking class, and it dawned on me that I’ve always loved illustrations, and that children’s books were the medium where you had fewer limitations as far as imagination goes.
How did you get started? I slowly developed a portfolio while working at a coffee shop. After a bunch of people encouraged me, I sent it to Nimbus Publishing. They got in touch, and I’ve been working with Nimbus for a long time now. Actually, Nimbus and Groundwood Books are the only two publishers I’ve ever worked with, and the only ones I’ve ever sent my portfolio.
What was your first kidlit illustration job? Nimbus was republishing some of Sheree Fitch’s older books (Mabel Murple, There Were Monkeys in My Kitchen, and Toes in My Nose). That was really important to me because I got to travel with her on some book tours, and we became close. It was a mentorship situation. I learned so much about the industry, and how to stick up for yourself.
What was your process for Sidewalk Flowers? There was a storyboard but it wasn’t specific. There were notes from JonArno like, “She finds a flower and they walk down the road; maybe you want to include a train bridge in this one?” But the pacing wasn’t included, which is understandable as that’s the illustrator’s job. It was open enough that I was allowed to put my own spin on it.
Everything went into the drawing – I didn’t have to dance around the words, or find ways to avoid redundancy.
Was it a collaborative process? I didn’t really talk to JonArno much once I received the manuscript; publishers generally don’t encourage writers to get involved until everything’s established and the illustrations are done. It depends on the author, too. I’ve worked with a few authors who were pretty much behind me the whole time. But I’ve never had an experience like this where the publisher basically said, “Just go. We like what you’re doing.”
Do you dream of writing your own books? All the time. My sister is a beautiful poet – it was never really my role in the family to write, the same way I would never expect her to pick up a pen and start drawing. It wasn’t on my radar until I started making kids’ books. Now I’m constantly working on ideas, but I still have more vision when it comes to art. I have much more confidence in what is good.