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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Syndey Smith and Review of Do You Remember?

Sydney Smith is a children’s book illustrator. He lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia with his wife and two sons.

Author photo of Sydney Smith

He’s the author/illustrator of Small in the City (2019) and the illustrator of My Baba’s Garden, written by Jordon Scott (2023), I Talk Like a River written by Jordan Scott (2020), Sidewalk Flowers by JonArno Lawson (2015); The White Cat and the Monk by Jo Ellen Bogart (2016); and Town Is By the Sea by Joanne Schwartz (2017), which was awarded the 2018 Kate Greenaway Medal and the 2018 TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award.

 

Sydney’s newest picture book, Do You Remember?, was released on October 3rd.

 

Welcome Sydney, thank you for coming back to talk about your newest author/illustrator picture book. 

 

What is the most unusual or fun place where you’ve written or illustrated a manuscript?


Being an artist in rented studio spaces, I’ve been in unusual places. Artist studios are usually the last life of a building before they are demolished or sold for redevelopment. We will work anywhere and there is always some odd mix of random businesses surrounding us, too. Currently, I am in a building with a trophy shop, a travel agent, and a martial arts studio. There is a power station that hums outside my window and a random deafening roar of some machine in the walls that keeps me on my toes.


I don’t have to go anywhere to find the unusual.

  

Everything but the deafening machine sounds interesting. What was your inspiration or spark of curiosity for Do You Remember?

Book cover - close up of a boy's face.

Do You Remember? had been on the simmer for years, beginning with the initial idea of painting memories that feel accurate. With a softness and a perspective. As I started building up material and exploring my own memories it became more complicated. When you open the gate, you can’t be selective as to what kind of memories come out. They are all connected.

 

And creating art that is deeply personal can be both cathartic and painful. Which came first, the text or the illustration? Do you find one easier than the other?


I find it easier to build up an atmosphere with images, switch to working on the text and then return to the image-making with the direction and specificity that the text provides. I say this but often can get carried away with one or the other. I have often built too much of a visual database with sketches and preliminary paintings because writing is terrifying.

 

I think you're talented at both, especially succinct, poignant text. What's something you want your readers to know about Do You Remember?


Do You Remember? is about shared memories and creating new ones. I found that when I was creating the book, I had a very comforting thought that perhaps Do You Remember? could inspire two people to make a memory together of a moment that is beautiful and intimate. The act of reading a book with each other is an act of love and to hold on to that feeling, as a memory, is a beautiful thought.


We all have the ability to actively create a memory. It is a concept I discovered when I was six years old and wanted to share with other readers, young and old.

 

This book is a remarkable gift for your readers. How long did it take from the idea for Do You Remember? to its publication?


It was two and a half years of writing and rewriting, killing darlings and bringing them to life. I involved everyone who would listen. Neal Porter and I worked very closely on the text until we both needed to step away and then return to it later with rested eyes. Jordan Scott (author of I Talk Like a River) was exceptionally helpful and encouraging. Taylor Norman was very important to the final development of the book when she came on board and started working with Neal.


I found it extremely difficult to have any perspective during the height of the pandemic, as nothing felt real. The book’s development definitely slowed down during that period.

 

It was a rough time for many people. I think it made us all ask a lot of tough questions of ourselves and our families. Many illustrators leave treasures or weave their own story (or elements) throughout the illustrations. Did you do this in Do You Remember? If so, could you share one or more with us?


Do You Remember? deals with memories but also uses my own experience of moving from a family home to a new apartment with my mom after my parents separated. I wanted to speak honestly about a child’s experience of their family changing and the feeling of confusion and concern they have for their parents. I didn’t want to have a didactic or prescriptive message. I just wanted it to be honest to the experience, and the images I chose were specific and directly from my own library of memories. The image of the belongings stacked in the room is a familiar image. I remember looking at familiar objects that once had a specific place in your old home and are now piled together, stacked and uneasy.

 

"Stacked and uneasy" is a great way to describe the items we see across the room, through the boy's eyes. Is there a spread of which you are especially proud? Which is your favorite spread?

Internal spread - dashboard of car, with upper curve of a steering wheel on left, a stuffed bear on the right, and a boys face in the rearview mirror.

Text & Image © Sydney Smith, 2023.


I love the double image of the bear on the dash of the car, the eyes in the rearview mirror and the face of the child behind, in the back seat. I have always found rendering reflections to be an exciting way of showing more to the scene because it suggests so much more outside the flat dimensions of the picture plane. Also, reflections feel challenging to paint accurately, but when they work they work. You can just feel it.

 

This one worked amazingly well. Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?


I am working on a book with Brian Floca as the author and Neal Porter, the editor. We are just getting going on it but I am excited to paint this one. I think I will have a lot of fun with it. It is about two characters navigating a storm on an island. I can already see the colours and paint building as the storm builds.

 

Good luck with this project. What is the best advice you’ve ever gotten - whether it’s regarding writing, publishing, or not?


I think the first piece of advice was the best. I was thinking about picture book illustration while I was in art school and my instructor handed me a pamphlet about illustrators winning the Governor General’s Award for Literature. He said, “This could be you.” That’s it. Nothing deep and profound but it was important. Someone I respected believed in me. That was the first time I took it seriously. It was my “see it, believe it, achieve it” moment.


Everyone needs someone who believes in them! Thank you, Sydney, for stopping by and sharing with us. It was wonderful to chat with you, again.


To find out more about Sydney Smith, or contact him:


Review of Do You Remember?


Channeling his memories and emotions from his childhood when his parents divorced, Sydney Smith has created an amazingly poignant and hopeful picture book on creating and holding onto memories.

Book cover - close up of a boy's face.

Do You Remember?


Author/Illustrator: Sydney Smith


Publisher: Neal Porter Books/Holiday House (2023)


Ages: 4-8


Fiction


Themes:

Memories, family, changes, and shared memories.


Synopsis:

From the multiple award-winning creator of Small in the City and the illustrator of I Talk Like a River comes a fresh and moving look at memories, filtered through the mind of a child.


Tucked in bed at a new apartment, a boy and his mother trade favorite memories. Some are idyllic, like a picnic with Dad, but others are more surprising: a fall from a bike into soft piled hay, the smell of an old oil lamp when a rainstorm blew the power out.


Now it’s just the two of them, and the house where all those memories happened is far away. But maybe someday, this will be a favorite memory, too: happy and sad, an end and a beginning intertwined.


In a series of warm and wistful vignettes, as achingly fleeting as childhood memories always become, Sydney Smith takes us into the mind of a young person processing a bevy of complex emotions during a major life change. Do You Remember? is a stirring meditation on holding fast to the best of the past, and choosing to believe in the future.


Opening Lines:

Do you remember . . .


. . . when we had a picnic in the field?

It was just you and me and your dad.

You were looking for snakes and bugs

while we were talking on that blue blanket.

And you came running up to us

with something in your hands.


Oh yes, I remember. That’s a good one.


What I LOVED about this book:

Starting with the image of four feet peeking out of covers looking toward a dark shadowy space with furniture and boxes (on the title page), we're treated to this touching and tender moment between a child and his mom, as they are snuggling in for the night.

Internal spread - heads of mother and child resting next to each other on pillows.

Text & Image © Sydney Smith, 2023.


And a gorgeous series of soft, pastel vignettes about the day from the child's point of view. followed by a stunning, nearly wordless, two-page spread. I love seeing this moment through the child's eyes, over the top of his berry-filled hands. Alternating colored text (Mom's is pink and the child's is blue) allows the reader to easily follow the dialogue between them.

Internal spread - father and mother sitting on a checkered blanket enjoying a picnic in a field as the sun is starting to set.

Text & Image © Sydney Smith, 2023.


Those berries were so sweet!


This pattern continues as the narration shifts back and forth between the mother and child snuggled in bed and their memories of a first bike ride and the child's laughing crash into a hay pile, a rainstorm and sitting together by a window with an old oil lamp, and then leaving their house to move into the city. There is so much emotion, context, and underlying story within the images. From the relationship of the parents - the tender moment at the picnic changing to the mom carrying boxes alone and the father handing a bear to the child through the car window and waving goodbye - to the viewpoint and reactions of the child. Each memory features one of the five senses - taste of berries, sound of laughter, smell of an oil lamp, touch of a bear, and the sight of a sunrise.


Sydney Smith's soft, gentle illustrations leave a lot of room for a child and caregiver to read into the story what they need. Is this a loss (divorce or death), perhaps moving ahead (due to change of circumstances), or something else. He doesn't specify many of the current details and allows the book to reach each reader, child, and caregiver, where they themselves are. The very definition of a perfect book. However, instead of dwelling on the negative aspects - crashing off a bike, leaving their home, and the changes they experience, the pair focuses on what makes each memory special to them.

Internal spread - clockwise, mother leaving house with a box, dad leaninginto car witha bear, dad waving goodbye infornt of haouse with sale sign, car in a mass of other cars, mom behind the wheel, & teddy bear being passed to mom in the front seat.

Text & Image © Sydney Smith, 2023.


It is such a tender moment when the child passes the bear forward and on the following double page spread, with the bear perched on the dashboard, the mother replies, "Of course I remember . . . /Your bear guided us all through the city, / all the way here."


With each return to the parent and child lying bed, the scenes slowly lighten as the sun begins to rise on a new day. The next two wordless spreads tenderly show them staring at the basket, blanket, bike, lantern, and bear stacked among a bunch of boxes at the end of their bed.


The child's final question and the ending of the book are so powerful, loving, hopeful, and even a bit magical. It's a wonderful reminder to us all that even in the midst of change, good things happen, and good memories can be made. This is a wonderful book for helping work through loss or just the inevitable challenges of change. One that will be sure to help families make some precious memories together.


Resources:

Photo of a decorated shoe box for holding memories.
  • decorate a shoebox (or any box) and collect special items/treasures to help you remember special times in your memory box.

  • what do you remember? Draw or write down some of your earliest or strongest memories, whether they are happy, sad, or somewhere in between.

  • can you think of a memory for each of the five senses - taste, touch, smell, sight, and sound? Draw a picture or write a description of what triggers that memory. For example: the smell of salt water, taste of fudge, sound of sanding wood, feel of a paint brush, and touching a sand dollar remind me of summers with my grandparents.

  • listen to Sydney Smith read Do You Remember?

  • for some early "behind the scenes" images and information on Do You Remember?, see Syndey's post on Picturebook Makers.

Comments


Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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