My Life In Books

Sydney Smith: 6 stories I'd love to illustrate

The Sydney Smith shares 6 books that shaped their life and work.
Sydney Smith is a Governor General's Award winning illustrator. (twitter.com)

Sydney Smith won the Governor General's Literary Award for children's literature (illustrated books) for his wordless picture book Sidewalk Flowers by JonArno Lawson. His latest illustrations can be seen in Knock About with the Fitzgerald-Trouts, a middle grade book by Esta Spalding, as well as the Governor General's Literary Award finalist Town Is by the Sea, a picture book by Joanne Schwartz.

The award-winning illustrator tells us about beloved books and stories that he'd love to illustrate.

Fighting Fantasy series by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone

Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson are the architects of Fighting Fantasy. (nomadicpress.org/Puffin Books)

I was deep into these choose your own adventure books when I was young. I would never read them properly. If I turned to page 36 and found that I took a wrong turn and the evil necromancer killed me, I would just go back and take the other option. (But what are you supposed to do, die? And just close the book for good?)

But I was drawing A LOT at that time and the illustrations inspired many of my own drawings. It was about being lost in the details of something that didn't exist. The way a dragon's neck would curl or how a giant's shadow would be cast on the side of a mountain. That level of transportation was only limited by my imagination. That's why I started drawing and that's why I still draw.

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro is the author of The Buried Giant. (Jeff Cottenden/Vintage Canada)

As I grow older I still appreciate fantasy, but I get tired of the muscular warrior, the grumpy dwarf and the buxom elf. This book still has the mystery and magic, but takes the reality of it to another level. The main characters aren't battling an enemy of unfathomable wickedness with powers of dark magic. It's more about their relationship and living with past regrets. Ishiguro takes a convention and adds a level of reality to it. It's not about the barbarian's perfect body and the feats of strength. Now it's more about the character's blemishes and weaknesses that make the fantastic elements more real. If I were to illustrate this book, I would do the same.

Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis

Andre Alexis' Fifteen Dogs was the winner of Canada Reads 2017. (CBC/Coach House Books)

I have been living in Toronto for three years and I'm still new here. I tell people I just moved here. I'm not sure when that will change but reading books set in Toronto helps. Another thing that helps is setting my books in Toronto. Sidewalk Flowers, the first book I illustrated in this city, is so Toronto. It has everything but the CN Tower and Drake. This book has the fantasy of talking dogs mixed with reality of survival, death and the search of happiness. It's the same equation.

Fantasy + practical reality = good reading.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman is the author The Ocean at The End of the Lane. (Kyle Cassidy/William Morrow and Company)

I have been a longtime fan of Neil Gaiman's work since a friend in high school loaned me some Sandman anthologies. It's a complicated relationship I have with Gaiman's works. The closer an author gets to writing something I would write myself the harder I am on them. I feel like Neil Gaiman and I were best friends in Grade 5, carrying around binders of lined paper, drawing writing and reading about mythology and fantasy.

"Tower of Babylon" by Ted Chiang

Ted Chiang is a science fiction short story writer and the author of Tower of Babylon. (Arturo Villarrubia/Vintage)

Chiang's sci-fi short stories take the practical treatment of an unreal premise to such an extent its almost self-indulgent. But that's a good place to be. I guess it's like being so good at your job, its threatening to others who just look at it. "Tower of Babylon" was the first story of his I read and it's stuck in my head. Maybe because I've been building towers out of blocks for my nine month old to destroy.

Growing up, my mother and stepfather were, and continue to be, ministers. I may have seen too much behind the scenes to ever feel like the church is for me and I may disagree with some of what the Bible preaches, but I love mythology of all religions. Christianity is no exception. Chiang's story is not just about injecting a realism into a myth, it's about choosing how to introduce those elements in a way that makes it seems so normal. The Tower of Babel is built so high that the characters climb past the sun, past the stars and the planets but it is described in such way it makes complete sense. To draw like that would be to make the imaginary real by focusing on the real details, not the fantasy.

The poetry of Alison Smith

Alison Smith is a poet and the author of the collection, Fishwork, dear. (thelemonhound.com/Gaspereau Press)

At the risk of being nepotistic, I would love to illustrate something my sister has written. I am a huge fan of her poetry. But I'm also coming at it from a unique angle. She writes about our region and our family in ways that remind me that even though we shared a youth together we experienced things independently. Not many people get the opportunity to glimpse into the mind and memories of someone you've known your whole life.

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