The ever-present ocean and inevitable pattern of life in a mining town will enthral children and move adult readers, as a young boy wakes up to the sound of the sea, visits his grandfather's grave after lunch and comes home to a cosy dinner with his family, but all the while his mind strays to his father digging for coal deep down under the sea.
Reviewed by Caroline Bradley
Town is By the Sea is a picturebook set in the 1950s and the story depicts the legacy of a mining town through the eyes of a young boy destined to become a miner in the footsteps of his father and his father’s father. The first person narrative takes the reader directly into the world of the young boy, who lives in a mining town on the Canadian coast.
Each day when the boy wakes he can hear seagulls, a barking dog, a car door, flowers rustling in the wind. The first thing he sees is the sea and he reflects on the knowledge that his father is already at work deep under the ocean working in the coal mine.
Sidney Smith’s exquisite illustrations contrast the luminescent seascape with the black, oppressive underworld where the miners labour. Underlining one of the story’s central themes: the choice, or perhaps lack of choice, available to the young boy as he looks towards the horizon, perhaps contemplating his future.
This is the perfect title for deeper thinking dialogue. The illustrations provide plenty of open questions as to what the story is about. On the surface, it seems to be a day in the life of a miner’s son. The story’s rhythmic, poetic text mirrors the rhythm of a day and the rhythm of the tides and these cyclical patterns punctuated with the refrain: “it goes like this…” could be used as a model for children’s writing. On first reading, it actually reminded me of John Prater’s Once Upon a Time.
But probing deeper we can ponder upon why the boy is looking out to sea and explore the emotions he may be feeling. Further discussion could explore the talking points around following a family trade and the benefits and disadvantages of living in the same place your whole life. The day’s end brings night and dreams of bright summer days and the dark underground. Does the final sentiment, “One day it will be my turn.” “In my town, that’s the way it goes.” suggest an inevitability that the boy will do what his father does and that is just the way it is. Is he condemned to the life of a miner? Or does it invite readers to question whether things must remain the same, just because they have always been so?
I think there could be much debate as to the whereabouts of the boy’s father. I think we are left wondering if the image of the family cuddling up together is actually a happy memory and the father is no longer with us.
Town is By the Sea offers plentiful opportunities for developing visual literacy. To investigate the language of colour, children could be guided to reflect on the contrasts of the heavy black lines of the town buildings, the boy’s shadow, the overwhelming darkness in the mine with the translucent quality of the sea and the sunlight. Perhaps the light represents hope? Children could explore these contrasts of light and dark in their own artwork. A closer study of the techniques used to create the effects of shimmering light on water could be used to extend children’s art skills.
This powerful, life-affirming picturebook would be well placed in key stage 2 classrooms.