Small in the City is one of the best picturebooks I’ve ever read. Sydney Smith has been well lauded for illustrating other people’s work. Here, though, he demonstrates that he is a remarkable author also.
On the cover, a small child, aged around eight, sits by the window of a vehicle. I am assuming she’s a girl. Her expression is thoughtful. What does the expression in that one visible eye convey? Let’s examine some of the clues we get before the story itself begins. The book is tall and narrow, like a city building. The endpapers depict what could be a blizzard. On the title page, the child walks purposefully, snug in warm clothes, carrying a rucksack. This is a well-cared-for child. On the first opening, we see her silhouetted against a vehicle window. The next opening reveals it’s a bus or streetcar. The city passes by outside the fogged-up windows.
Smith’s genius is evident in how so much meaning is conveyed with loose dark lines and blurry images. Reflections abound. Perspective shifts constantly. She appears to be alone. Why would a parent let a child ride on public transport alone? She does not seem fearful. Maybe it is a journey she makes regularly? For example, she signals for the bus to stop and steps off, confidently, into cold sunlight and shadows. After she alights, some text appears, and we realise that she is speaking reassuringly to someone who seems to be lost. Who can it be?
The city seems overpowering, dense, busy, chaotic. Smith’s use of a mixture of big and small, framed and unframed images makes us see and feel how it is to be small in such an overwhelming environment. For example, she informs her unseen listener that “people don’t see you and loud sounds can scare you”.
The weather gradually disimproves. Flurries of snow appear. She is not lost – she knows this neighbourhood well. There is advice to the unseen listener about safe routes, warm places and trustworthy people. The fishmongers “are nice” we are told, as we see a fishmonger sitting outside his shop. That catches our eye. We pause. Sitting outside on such a cold day? Smith wants us to notice something. Nothing is in a picturebook image unless it is necessary. We move along. In the next image, something else catches our eye. We check back to the fishmonger’s door. The unseen listener hears that a warm, cosy home is there. The line “If you want, you could just come back.” is heartbreaking.
The weather steadily worsens. The child almost disappears in the blizzard. Our hearts are in our mouths.
Teachers, this book needs to be read more than once. If you’re like me, then first, you need to sit quietly, read and reread and study the images. Then share the book with your class. Allow them to linger and ponder. Discuss the relevance of the splashes of red. Check out any footprints in the snow. This little story exudes empathy, compassion, loss, and hope. It is an emotional and breathtakingly beautiful read.
Winner of the Kate Greenaway Medal 2021. The complete shortlist collection is available on bestbooksforschool.com
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