After six years in Toronto, illustrator Sydney Smith has moved back to Nova Scotia, where he grew up in a small town south of the provincial capital of Halifax. He did not come home empty handed. (A Halifax bookstore advertising a signing dubbed him their “local art hero.”) In addition to the slew of starred reviews and prestigious awards he collected while living in Ontario’s biggest city, Smith also brought home a manuscript, Small in the City (Holiday House/Porter), the first book he has both written and illustrated.
“It took a little while to write my first story because I’m not super familiar with my own voice or how I wanted to sound,” said Smith, whose books have won the U.K.’s Kate Greenaway Medal, a Boston Globe/Horn Book Award, and multiple Best Illustrated citations from the New York Times. “I played around quite a bit but I knew there were certain anchors I wanted to keep. I wanted it to be set in a snowstorm. I loved the idea of the city changing and becoming quiet as the snow falls.”
Small in the City contains multiple mysteries, beginning with the gender of the narrator, a deliberately androgynous child who exits a public bus bundled up beneath hat, scarf, and winter overcoat. “I’m not trying to grandstand or make any sort of statement, but I’m not going to say if it’s a boy or a girl,” Smith said. “I like the ambiguity.”
The plot is propelled by an uneasy tension—is this child homeless? Hungry? Who is the assured dialogue directed at?—with a narrative twist that upends what the reader probably thought the story was about. “My own mother said, ‘Oh, I think I get it,’” Smith said, with a laugh. “But when you provide a challenge to a reader, it’s a way more rewarding read because you trusted them to put the clues together and figure out what’s going on.”
What Smith will say definitively about his authorial debut is that the story is about loss. “Adults think they have a monopoly on heartbreak and they don’t,” he said. “Children lose things all the time and are told to suck it up or put off feeling bad, but it’s hard to be asked as a child to be mature or be understanding when all you want to do is to express the pain you feel.”
Neal Porter made the book one of his first acquisitions for his imprint at Holiday House, securing world rights (excluding Canada) in a seven-house auction in 2018. Canadian rights were acquired by Sheila Barry at Groundwood Books. Barry published Smith’s breakout book, the wordless picture book Sidewalk Flowers (conceived by JonArno Lawson) and Smith’s other Groundwood titles—Grant and Tillie Go Walking by Monica Kulling, The White Cat and the Monk by Jo Ellen Bogart, and Town Is by the Sea by Joanne Schwartz. Small in the City will be the first of Smith’s picture books not to be edited by Barry, who served as a mentor, editor, and friend to the illustrator.
“I was developing [Small in the City] around the time she told me she had cancer,” he recalled. “She was going through chemo but she really didn’t seem sick. She still had the same energy and positivity.” Barry died in November 2017, just a few months after her diagnosis. “It was fast. It was a huge shock,” Smith said. Small in the City is dedicated to her.
“It felt really hard to move on from [Groundwood], which had been such a supportive family to me. But I definitely had Sheila’s blessing to go and work with Neal because she knew he works exactly the same way she did,” he said. “He gives you a lot of freedom to make your own choices.”
Small in the City has already received five starred reviews, as well as the Society of Illustrators Silver Medal. “That is enough to sustain me for a long time,” Smith said.
The move back to Nova Scotia was occasioned by the birth of Smith’s second child in February. “We felt like we were at the limits with one kid in the city,” he said. Both he and his wife, Maggie, are from Nova Scotia. “We have family here and we missed them but they were also eager to be a part of our kids’ lives.” Small in the City then became more than just another book, he said. A story about profound loss, an album of images reflecting the life they were leaving behind. “It’s our neighborhood but not so specific that it can’t be any city. There are street cars but there’s no CN Tower,” Smith said. “I wanted it to be a bit universal but, if anything, it’s a document of our time in Toronto.”