Books·How I Wrote It

How East Coast mining culture inspired Joanne Schwartz and Sydney Smith's beautiful picture book

Town Is by the Sea is the winner of the 2018 TD Canadian Children's Literature Award.
Town Is by the Sea is a picture book written by Joanne Schwartz and illustrated by Sydney Smith. (Groundwood Books/Steve Farmer)

Town Is By The Sea is a children's book steeped in Maritime nostalgia and the history of the area's coal-mining industry. Both its author Joanne Schwartz and award-winning illustrator Sydney Smith hail from Nova Scotia and both cite their East Coast upbringing as a major influence on their work. Set in a coastal mining town, the story follows a young boy as he goes through a typical day in the life of his seaside town. 

Town Is By The Sea won the $50K TD Canadian Children's Literature Award for 2018 — the country's richest prize for kids' literature. 

In their own words, Schwartz and Smith discuss their award-winning collaboration.

A uniquely Maritime story

Joanne says: "Growing up in Cape Breton, I grew up surrounded by a very palpable history. Engaging with it was something I wanted to do for a long time. I wanted to bring to life this amazing community that had gone through such incredible struggles.

"This is a story of generational bonds, through family and through labour struggles and through community. But as I engaged with it, this boy's voice came alive in my head and that seemed like a better way to reach children." 

Interior artwork from Town Is by the Sea, illustrated by Sydney Smith and written by Joanne Schwartz. (Groundwood Books)

An instant connection

Sydney says: "Joanne's story was like a gift to me. Going from the ocean to the mine — those are two extremely different visual descriptions. You can't read it and not feel the magnitude of both of those things. Immediately, you've got images. It took a bit of sitting down and thinking about how best to capture the weight of the earth. It made sense to have the mine so far under the ground that it's cut off by the edges of the page.

"I was excited about it the whole time that I was working on the illustrations. I would come in and show [Joanne] little bits here and there and she was great about it. She would say 'It looks great, I'm really excited,' and that was it. That's all I needed, I just wanted to share the excitement with her." 

Interior artwork from Town Is by the Sea, illustrated by Sydney Smith and written by Joanne Schwartz. (Groundwood Books)

From generation to generation

Joanne says: "The generational aspect is part of the story. Boys in an earlier generation would be getting ready to go down in the mines. So as a boy in this part of history, the main character in the book is very aware of his father and what his father is doing because of the mining experience and the mining story. He's deeply conscious of what his father is doing and what his grandfather did. As a 10-year-old boy he is carefree but in the back of his mind, he is very conscious of his father's work and his father's safety."

Sydney says: "I was working on the book leading up to my son's birth and I finished the book shortly thereafter. The entire time I was working on it, I was focused on the generational element of it. I was thinking about my own father and about me becoming a father and it was all pretty heavy. It was almost like therapy for me, preparing for this and thinking about legacy. Things change, but it is more the unknown that is really scary. It's like standing on a beach at night waiting for a wave to hit you that you can't see. You just know it's coming. It's exciting and terrifying at the same time."  

Joanne Schwartz and Sydney Smith's comments have been edited and condensed.