Town Is by the Sea introduces readers to the day-to-day reality of growing up in a mining town, as seen through the eyes of a young boy. The boy shares everything with readers, describing his seaside home with its view of the town and the ocean, the consistent pattern of sounds he hears when he wakes up in the morning, the flowers blooming in the ditch, the swing set in the nearby playground, how the seaspray jumps up to wash his grandfather’s gravestone.
Joanne Schwartz explores similar themes to those in her previous book, Pinny in Summer, which highlighted the small delights that accompany a free-range childhood. But this time, she’s added something extra: a strong reminder of the responsibility and expectations that her main character will eventually inherit. The boy’s father is a coal miner, and his work under the ocean is never far from the boy’s thoughts.
Sydney Smith’s gorgeous, airy illustrations showcase the beauty of childhood in the seaside town. The combination of small, private moments and sweeping landscapes complete with shimmering water show off the simple grandeur of the natural environment and the boy’s experiences. These pages, dedicated to lightness and freedom, are punctuated with those depicting the boy’s father, working deep under the ocean. The dark, claustrophobic images provide a purposefully stark contrast, complemented by Schwartz’s text. It’s not just the descriptions of the boy’s idyllic small-town childhood that will remain with readers, but also his unquestioning acceptance of his own risky future digging for coal. “One day it will be my turn. I’m a miner’s son. In my town, that’s the way it goes.”
Schwartz’s historical narrative – set in the 1950s – is simple and accessible. She perfectly captures the matter-of-fact thinking of a small child, and ties it all together with a tight, repetitive structure. But the subtle, flowing poetry of her words, combined with Smith’s powerful illustrations, will make Town Is by the Sea an adult favourite as well. If your copy of Smith’s lauded Sidewalk Flowers is looking lonely on the shelf, this book might be its perfect companion.