In only 37 pages and a handful of sentences, Small in the City (Neal Porter Books/Holiday House) broke my heart and put it back together again. Yes, I actually teared up from a picture book. And yes, it was in the middle of the office.
Sydney Smith, the writer and illustrator, uses only “ink, watercolor and a bit of gouache” to depict our protagonist’s journey through a snowy city. The unnamed narrator is a little boy, probably younger than ten. He squeezes through crowds of distracted adults, his nose red from the cold, the bus windows frosty and blurred. Along the way, he gives advice about how to make it in a big city when “people don’t see you and loud sounds can scare you.”
But who exactly is he talking to? And why is he out all alone? Various scenarios entered my mind, but the end reveal kept me guessing until the very last page.
The pacing is slow as if I were trudging through the snow with him. The artwork zooms in on faces, flashes of light and the reflection of pink clouds in the windows of a skyscraper. We see every detail as he would see it. Some are beautiful, almost hidden to the people rushing past around him. Others cause him anxiety like construction work or dark alleys.
But he cheers his unknown friend on: “I know you. You’ll be all right.” I got the sense that he is trying to gather his courage as well. On one page, he walks by three big dogs fenced in a yard and says, “I would avoid the place … if I were you.” But he walks right past it despite his fear. He clearly has a mission.
Children learn that sticking to a plan, despite the obstacles, is ultimately worthwhile. They learn to reframe loneliness into action just like the little boy in the city. Instead of hiding away by himself, he went out into the cold and put up flyers to help find his friend, mentally urging him on. He imagined his friend making it through the city safely just as he was.
No wonder Smith’s story is so poignant. The artist has won three successive New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Books of the Year awards for his work on Sidewalk Flowers, The White Cat and the Monk and Town is by the Sea.
Simultaneously a mystery and an exploration of what it’s like to be a kid in a hectic world, Small in the City won’t let you go from the first page to the very last.
Small in the City will be available on September 3rd.