May 31, 2017 Groundwood Books

Joanne Schwartz on writing Town is By The Sea

Town is By the Sea is a 2017 Boston Globe-Horn Book Honoree!
We asked Joanne Schwartz for a few words about how she wrote this hauntingly beautiful book.

I grew up in Cape Breton, surrounded by landscape and stories, the mining story being one of the most compelling. It is a story that is palpable, ingrained in family histories and community memory; honored with monuments and annual memorials. As a kid we used to drive out to these small mining towns to go visit friends and family. People talked, sharing their stories with generosity in a disarming salt-of-the-earth manner. Those Sunday drives also took us often to Glace Bay to visit the Miners Museum. Here the dramatic labor struggles of the mining history were laid out. Years of injustice, poverty and lost lives mark their course. What I learned of the history of mining made an indelible impression on me, one that has never lessened. Over the years, and recently more intensely, I took a personal reading journey deep into the pit and slowly, Town Is by the Sea emerged.

How to describe these small towns dotting the landscape, perched at the ocean’s edge? The phrase “town, road, grassy cliff, sea” came to mind, to capture that remote end-of-the-world feeling of these towns. How to tell something of the families? And a young boy’s voice came next. Through his lens I could find my way into the story and show how the mining history runs through generations of families. How to convey the disjuncture between the beauty of the landscape and the deep, dark, underground world of submarine mining? Create a rhythm in the text, like the rhythm of the sea, back and forth between the ever-present ocean and the depths of the pit. How to tell something of the legacy of the labor history? Show that link between grandfather, father and son — how the past, present and future converge in a shared story of labor, struggle and memory.

Town Is by the Sea comes out of all of this. It is my ode to the miners and their families, to the struggles they have endured and the communities they have created, in this rugged corner of the country.


Town is By the Sea

Town is By the Sea
Written by Joanne Schwartz, illustrated by Sydney Smith
A young boy wakes up to the sound of the sea, visits his grandfather’s grave after lunch and comes home to a simple family dinner with his family, but all the while his mind strays to his father digging for coal deep down under the sea.

With curriculum connections to communities and the history of mining, this beautifully understated and haunting story brings a piece of Canadian history to life. The ever-present ocean and inevitable pattern of life in a Cape Breton mining town will enthrall children and move adult readers.

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