June 20, 2021 9:33:56 am
Written by Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar
In December 2020, I received a gift from a friend: two books for children which affirmed the power of a story effectively narrated, proved the importance of broaching difficult issues with children, and showed how a thoughtfully chosen gift could brighten up a sombre day in the life of the recipient. Those two books were Sidewalk Flowers (2015), by JonArno Lawson, illustrated by Sydney Smith, and Town Is By The Sea (2017) by Joanne Schwartz, illustrated by Sydney Smith.
Both books have originally been published by Groundwood Books, the children’s imprint of House of Anansi Press, the independent publishing house based in Toronto, Canada, whose website – as well as the website of Groundwood Books – “respectfully [acknowledges]” on its homepage “that the land on which we operate is the traditional territory of many nations, including the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishnabeg, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee, and the Wendat peoples.” If the respectful acknowledgement of the land of the indigenous people impressed me, the books thoroughly charmed me.
Sidewalk Flowers has a story, but there is not a single word. The entire story is told in pictures. A little girl, maybe three or four years old, wearing a red hoodie, is walking in a city with her father, holding his hand. The father, a busy man, is always glued to his mobile phone. The father-daughter duo walks by buildings, people, cars, pigeons; but while the girl is all wide-eyed and observant – there is a panel showing her curiously staring at the tattooed hand of a person – the father, holding a bag of groceries, is not having any conversation with her.
The girl’s attention is drawn by wild flowers growing by the side of the road. She picks them, and in doing so, sometimes misses her father’s hand and then has to run to grab it again. She gives away those flowers as gifts or tributes. No one asks her to, she does it by herself. She spots a bird lying dead in the middle of a path. She stops, lays a small bouquet on the bosom of that dead bird, and then runs and grabs her father’s hand again. On seeing a man sleeping on a bench, she places a twig of pink and purple flowers by his foot. While the father meets and shakes hands with an acquaintance, the girl shakes a paw of that acquaintance’s dog and tucks in a few flowers in the dog’s collar. Sidewalk Flowers is a touching description of the guileless mind of a child, who gives away what she had painstakingly collected during her walk without expecting anything in return.
Town Is By The Sea is thought-provoking and – might I say? – somewhat disturbing, too. The author, Joanne Schwartz, dedicates the book to her father: “For my father, Irving Schwartz, heartfelt son of New Waterford, who said, ‘we owe everything to the miners'”. In the Author’s Note at the end of the book, Schwartz writes: “If you were a boy in the mining towns of Cape Breton – or, indeed, a child in any mining town in the world – in the late 1800s and early 1900s, you might well have faced the prospect of going to work in the mines at the young age of nine or 10, enduring 12-hour days in the harsh, dangerous and dark reality underground. Decades later, the life of these towns still revolves around the mines… This was the legacy of a mining town.”
I mention the author’s dedication and her note because I want to put into context what I have to write about the book. I am not sure what the effect would have been had the Author’s Note been at the beginning of the book instead of the end. Perhaps, it would have hinted at the “dark reality underground”. The part, “We owe everything to the miners,” in the dedication, does give a hint of what this book is all about.
Town Is By The Sea is set in the unnamed, eponymous town by the sea, a “town [which] spreads out, this way and that.” Wikipedia informed me that New Waterford is an “urban community” in Cape Breton Island in Canada and both places are known for their coal reserves. The narrator is a boy who is small enough to fit in a baby swing “in the old rickety playground” but is old enough for his mum to “[send him] to the shop with a list for the grocer.” His house is by the sea, “[it] goes like this — house, road, grassy cliff, sea.” His father is a coal miner who “works under the sea, deep down in the coal mines.” Practically, every man in that town is a coal miner. The narrator’s grandfather, too, was one.
The narrator mentions, in idyllic details, all that he does throughout the day. He plays, goes grocery shopping and visits his grandfather’s grave. However, between each activity of his, the narrator looks out at the sea and, immediately, somewhat jarringly, mentions: “And I know my father is already deep down under that sea, digging for coal.”
Towards the end of the book, the “dark reality underground” hits, and the narrator looks forward to the day when he himself would go under the seabed as a coal miner, mining for coal, because “[in his] town, that’s how it goes.” While Sidewalk Flowers brimmed with the hope of giving and receiving gifts, Town Is By The Sea raised quite a few questions — isn’t there a way out for the children of coal miners to explore other employment opportunities, other than coal mining? Perhaps, in places away from their seaside hometown?
Second, given the premium accorded to education in our society – especially in India – does the role of education come in somewhere in the type of scenario depicted in Town Is By The Sea? In this book, the narrator is seen doing everything a child his age does except going to school. Schwartz mentions in the Author’s Note that the story in the book is set in the 1950s, when “boys of high-school age [carried] on the traditions of their fathers and grandfathers, continued to see their future working in the mines.” How is the situation now? How relevant is this story in the present time? And how is the situation in other mining areas across the world? How bad (or good) was it for a coal miner’s son to aspire to become a coal miner and nothing else when he grew up?
In Town Is By The Sea, I found it heartening that Schwartz and Smith had attempted to tell their younger readers about a real and not-quite-picture book-pleasant issue. We need more children’s books like this one, for we need to prime our children for life, for the world, while they’re still young, empathetic and not cynical. And, of course, we’ll always need friends who’ll gift us books.
Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar is a writer and doctor based in Jharkhand
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