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Review: Small in the City by Sydney Smith

Small in the City
By Sydney Smith

Neal Porter Books/Holiday House

ISBN: 9780823442614
Grades K-2
Out September 3, 2019

*Best New Book*

Find it at:
Schuler Books | Your Library

When it comes to picture book making, one of the holy grails is re-readability. Concocting a story that readers care to hear once and only once? Common. But creating a world to which readers want to return is much more elusive. If you want an example of the latter, there is no better recent book to hand you than Small in the City, Sydney Smith’s (Sidewalk Flowers) author/illustrator debut. It’s a child-centric ode to urban existence with a twist so beautiful and compelling it doesn’t just invite re-reading, it allows you to see the story in a whole new way.

A small boy rides a bus in a busy city. As he hops off and begins walking, the boy describes the noisy, busy, sometimes scary world he sees. But instead of fearing the worst, he offers advice on navigating the urban landscape: alleys to use, dryer vents that offer a warm up, and a favorite park bench for resting. As snow flurries turn into a blizzard, the advice becomes more unusual and specific, leaving the reader to wonder: who exactly is the boy speaking to?

It is a unique pleasure to read a picture book you think is going to be one thing and then turns out to be something different. Smith’s narrator deftly subverts expectations, keeping readers on their toes wondering where the story is heading. And when the twist is revealed, readers will want to begin again so they can experience the book with a new perspective.

Smith’s inky, loose style perfectly captures the setting and emotion of the story. It’s also frequently inventive, with “How did he do that?” spreads littered throughout. A series of tiny comic panel-style vignettes sets the tone of a chaotic city. Smith’s use of light and reflection (see image above) are especially remarkable. And the guy has a way with wordless passages.

A stunning authorial debut and a book that you’ll want to read (and then read again). Small in the City is one of my favorite books of 2019.

Review copy from the publisher.

About Travis Jonker

Travis Jonker is an elementary school librarian in Michigan. He writes reviews (and the occasional article or two) for School Library Journal and is a member of the 2014 Caldecott committee. You can email Travis at scopenotes@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter: @100scopenotes.