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Town Is by the Sea: Author Joanne Schwartz’s 2017 BGHB Picture Book Honor Speech

Because I grew up in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, this book is very dear to my heart, and so achieving this kind of recognition has particular significance. There would have been no one more delighted to see the response to this book than my father, to whom the book is dedicated. It isn’t that far of a stretch to say it started with him and has been brewing ever since. My father imbued our family with a sense of respect and admiration for the incredibly hard work and dramatic labor struggles that the miners and their families endured in the working-class community he grew up in. Markers to memorialize the mining history are everywhere in these small Cape Breton towns, and we visited them all, many times. When the boy’s voice in my story finally emerged, all of this, along with all my reading and research, was distilled into the few words the boy says and the feelings he conveys. It’s all there, and it’s all not there.

Of course the text gets passed along to an illustrator, and I couldn’t have been luckier when Sydney Smith said yes. Sydney’s illustrations merge with my text as though they were made as one. They punctuate the rhythm, embellish the small moments, and reveal nuanced details and broad strokes. His spreads of sea and town and the dark underground are stunning. I can’t thank him enough for his beautiful artistry.

It’s deeply gratifying to see this book reaching such a wide audience. When the book’s Vietnamese publisher said, “We feel a lot of compassion for this story. In our country we have a coal-mining city with the same issues and the same scenery,” I knew I had struck a chord that reverberates far beyond the shores of Cape Breton.

And that is what this weekend speaks to — the flexibility and muscularity of children’s books to be containers for stories with meaning and depth and relevancy, across borders and in troubled times.

From the January/February 2018 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. Read Town Is by the Sea illustrator Sydney Smith’s speech here. For more on the 2017 Boston Globe–Horn Book Awards, click on the tag BGHB17.

Joanne Schwartz About Joanne Schwartz

Joanne Schwartz is the author of Town Is By the Sea (Groundwood), a 2017 Boston Globe-Horn Book Picture Book Honor Book.

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