Before I get more fully underway on Sydney Smith’s Do You Remember?, his second title as both author and illustrator, I should probably get to the point and say that this is an incredibly beautiful picturebook that brings to life a moment in time, and moments in the time of a mother and son embarking on a new life, far from what was home. It’s a rich picturebook that is perhaps best saved for personal exploration, or perhaps to share with a loved one, snuggled up, no place else to be, nowhere to go but into the world of the book and then the world of your own shared memories.
In short, like those before it from Smith, it’s a great book, packed with beauty, humanity and the power of noticing and noting the apparently small, utterly huge moments in life.
That’s the short review of the book. Please feel free to go and buy or borrow it immediately. But there’s so much else to talk about. Let’s just linger on just a few of its charms.
If you are familiar with the work of Sydney Smith you will likely come to Do You Remember? with a very reasonable set of expectations…
Firstly, if you haven’t laid eyes on it yet, you may reasonably assume that the cover will be a thing of true beauty. And not one of those more mundane things of beauty, celebrated in one moment and forgotten in the next. No. It will be one of those real things of beauty: something you’ll linger on. Something you’ll feel as much as see. Something you’ll wonder at, again and again. More on the cover later.
You’ll also likely expect to find a series of carefully rendered expertly crafted images that bring a small part of the world to life in all its hugeness. More on this life-rendering later.
You’ll feel confident that whatever the subject, it will be handled with the rare kind of sensitivity that comes from someone deeply interested in people, and even more deeply invested in the particularity, as well as something of the entirety of their lives.
You will get all the above and more. It’s a book about humans by a deeply human author/illustrator who, across his body of work, continues to experiment and grow and somehow refine and extend his approaches and aesthetic. It’s a thrilling, intensely rewarding journey to be a part of as an observer and reader. It’s a blessing.
Now to return, as promised, to a couple of aspects mentioned above. Let’s start at the beginning with this book’s front cover. Here, for the first time if I’m not mistaken, we have the most direct gaze yet of a Sydney Smith character – a close up image of almost all of a young boy’s face, illuminated to the right by speckled light. As in Sydney’s more recent work, beginning with Town is by the Sea, there is a cinematic quality to his illustrations. Here his subject might well be captured by one of the great cinematographers of cinema, working with natural light at the magic hour, that golden time that the legendary Nestor Almendros described as ‘when the light seems to come from nowhere; from a magic place. It is a time of extraordinary beauty.’
Almendros spoke of how ‘the total integration of light and visuals’ was a guiding principle in his peerless, strikingly beautiful work in film. This speaks to a very particular quality that can be traced in Smith’s work since the extraordinary collaboration with Joanne Schwartz on Town is By the Sea. The play of light marks Smith out as an especially filmic picturebook maker. From the layered surfaces, reflections, and visual distortions of Small in the City to the transcendent widescreen spread at the heart of his work with Jordan Scott on I Talk Like A River, we are in the hands of someone who plays with and develops his images to a rare form of painterly expression that marries style and substance to startling, evocative effect.
In Do You Remember? I would say this is truer than ever. Across the book, a mother and son lay in bed and reminisce. The narrative moves between vivid, shared memories told to each other as the light of daybreak seeps into their room across a series of intervening threads, taking us into the dawn of a new day, a new place, and a new start in life. Memories are rendered in light and shade according to the moment – perhaps most strikingly in a series of vignettes that revisit the darkness and lantern flames of a violent rainstorm. In a recent webinar, hosted by Just Imagine, Smith showed a range of images he had produced in developing these scenes; one, of a single candle in front of a darkened window, was astonishing, all the more so for not making the final cut of the book. It called to mind the dark tones of Rembrandt or Caravaggio in an instant. I can only hope, and hope and hope, that we will one day be treated to a sketchbook retrospective of these incidental offerings.
A final, closing dedication to his mother brings the book to an emotional, very personal close. For some of us, who have been on similar journeys as those presented in the book, the book achieves a depth that is hard to put into words. So, I’ll wrap up.
Going back to some of those earlier assumptions. It’s probably not fair to assume greatness from any single person working creatively. It’s good, nonetheless, not to be disappointed. Do You Remember? really is a great piece of work from an uncommonly stirring and moving illustrator.
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