Book blog No 5. Town is by the Sea by Joanne Schwartz and Sydney Smith


‘From my house, I can see the sea. It goes like this — house, road, grassy cliff, sea. And town spreads out, this way and that.’

This is one of those books that from the moment you see it you know it is something special. Whilst set in  a coal mining community in Nova Scotia in the 1950’s for me working as a headteacher in a coastal town this book sang to me instantly.  From the opening cover image dominated by the sea where the boy is facing back into the book we immediately know that this is a tale of reminiscence and inevitability. It’s a book of patterns  and repeats.

As the boy talks about his father mining we get  a clarity around him feeling trapped in this place ‘One day it will be my turn. I’m a miner’s son. In my town, that’s the way it is.’

We are presented with a tale that will repeat again and again. It’s a story of small worlds and limited hopes and aspirations, of being trapped in a repeating cycle.


There’s a minimalistic quality to this boy’s recount of a normal summer day, words are sparsely used but carefully crafted. The world is expansive yet contained, wide vistas lead to limited locations. The sea both offers the door to the wider world but also the barrier to stepping through it. It is a book about nothing and everything. It’s a book of hope and hopelessness.


Light and dark is powerfully used in the illustration. There is a stark contrast between the two worlds and this sings out through Smith’s evocative artwork.

As we explore the boy’s day, one element comes to dominate and that is his thoughts of his father mining under the sea. The repeated phrase ‘And deep down under that sea, my father is digging for coal.’ ties us into his thoughts and fears. This is wonderfully juxtaposed in the images.

Townunder 1

These pages are  dominated by an oppressive blackness that carries extraordinary weight to them whilst our miners are almost just a footnote on the page.

That the book is any day and everyday is both harsh and comforting at the same time. The book steers away from sentimentality and instead just says this is what it is. The humdrum normality of this life and this place.

Town under 3

There is a moment that sings out as we are left waiting at the end after a collapse in the mine. The use of light and shadow to show that passing of time is practically perfect and leaves you nervous to turn the page. Schwartz and Smith have created a timeless book

I’m using this with a greater depth writing group in Year 6 next week. I can’t wait to see where they take it and what they do with it. I know the discussions will be amazing.

It was my favourite picturebook of last year and it is just sublime IMO.

A beautiful quiet, sensitive and profound picturebook with real heart.   (9+)

(A great class explore for Year 4 and up. With care could be used with younger children )

Themes :- Community,  family, aspiration/predetermination, hope/hopelessness, fear , voices and viewpoints.

Below is a trailer which evokes the story beautifully