I Talk Like A River

I Talk Like A River
Jordan Scott and Sydney Smith
Walker Books

The transformational power of just a few words can sometimes be truly amazing and so it is in Jordan Scott’s autobiographical story. He’s a poet and this is reflected in his lyrical prose wherein he reflects on his childhood stutter and how a conversation with his father after a particularly bad day at school made all the difference.

That day gets off to the usual kind of reflective start but it’s in the classroom where things really take their toll.

When his dad collects him after school, the two take a walk beside the river. It’s quiet surrounded by nature, and having watched his son finally let the pent up emotions of the day flow from his eyes, “They don’t see a pine tree sticking out from my lips instead of a tongue.”

dad sits beside the boy and together they watch the water. “See how that water moves? / That’s how you speak.” he says.

The boy sees ‘bubbling, / whirling, / churning, / and crashing’ and then, keeping his dad’s words in his head he wades into the sunlit water. (shown behind a glorious gatefold) …

Next morning at school the narrator is able to recall these words and ‘to think of the calm river beyond the rapids / where the water is smooth and glistening. … Even the river stutters. / Like I do.’’
No, there’s no instant cure, but this experience does enable the narrator to find a way to tell the class about his favourite place. One cannot help but feel tearful at reading his final few sentences.

I can think of no better artist than Sydney Smith to illustrate Scott’s often painful language. Smith’s wonderfully atmospheric paintings are simply exquisite capturing not only the gut-wrenching pain the boy feels but also the power and energy of the river and of nature itself.

Following the story is a moving ‘How I Speak’ note by the author. Herein he gives additional details of his own childhood experience – his road to self-acceptance and finding a context in which to place his own stutter: ’he (dad) gave image and language to talk about something so private and terrifying.’

This reviewer was absolutely swept away by this awesome collaboration.

Small in the City

Small in the City
Sydney Smith
Walker Books

I’ve loved Sydney Smith’s work ever since I saw his illustrations for Footpath Flowers so was super-excited to learn of his first picture book as both author and illustrator. It’s a stunner.

The story begins with two wordless spreads showing a child on a tram, the first four blurred views through the tram’s misted window from the boy’s seat,

the second looking into and within the vehicle.

Then, warmly wrapped against the cold, the lad (our narrator) rings the bell, gets off the tram and starts walking. ‘I know what it’s like to be small in the city,” he comments as he crosses the road, continuing to talk of the hustle and bustle around.

As he negotiates crowds and traffic we sense that it’s not the reader he’s addressing, rather it’s a special someone known to him; and instead of being scared, he begins to give advice, …’don’t go down this alley. It’s too dark.’ … ‘There are lots of good places to hide, like under this mulberry bush. Or up the black walnut tree.’

Gradually, even before the boy begins to put up posters, readers understand that he isn’t talking to a human at all. As he enters the park, snow swirling all around, he stops to put up another of his posters; then we see …

and in the dwindling daylight we fully appreciate his, ‘Your bowl is full and your blanket is warm. If you want you could just come back.’

There’s a final twist in the narrative that leaves readers with fast beating hearts, awed by Smith’s brilliance in capturing emotions, and by his use of light, shadows and reflections; and with new knowledge, a desire to turn back to the beginning and start the story over again.

The White Cat and the Monk


The White Cat and the Monk
Jo Ellen Bogart and Sydney Smith
Walker Books
Having been totally bowled over by Sydney Smith’s Footpath Flowers, I knew I wanted to review this book despite not being familiar with any of its author’s work. (In her note at the back she tells us ‘In Irish, the word bán means white. Pangur has been said to refer to the word fuller, a person who fluffed and whitened cloth. We might think, then, that Pangur Bán was a cat with brilliantly white fur. Perhaps she even glowed in the candlelight.’) In Sidney Smith’s spread here, she surely does so …


In fact in all his glorious illustrations herein, I detect the portrayal of a similar reverence for life and learning shown by the two characters , the monk and the cat, as those of the adult and child in Footpath Flowers.
Essentially, this is an interpretation of a medieval Irish poem penned by a Benedictine monk and it’s through the monk’s lenses that we view his solitary world. The scholarly monk shares his cell with the white cat of the title and with readers, his meditation on life with Pangur and with his ‘peaceful pursuit of knowledge’ through his books. While he does this the cat in its turn is busy with his own pursuits in the spartan abode: he stalks a mouse …


Each is content with his lot and both are completely absorbed in what they do.


There is actually within this story, another story for one of the monk’s manuscripts shows this –


an even more ancient portrayal of another monk and cat. And we’re treated to a marvellous illuminated manuscript spread which in itself opens up a wonderful opportunity to discuss the art created by medieval monks.


My first encounter with the poem was through the W.H. Auden adaption wherein the monk addresses the cat and begins:
Pangur, white Pangur,
How happy we are
Alone together, Scholar and cat.
Each has his own work to do daily;
For you it is hunting, for me, study.
This second, thanks to Bogart and Smith is for me, more beautiful, more wondrous. Towards the end, Smith’s ink and watercolour frames take us towards the window …


and the monk’s final words


” … and I find light in the darkness.” Pangur seemingly, is the light in more than one sense. Both monk and cat can delight in and celebrate each other’s good fortune : so too can we if only we choose to view the world through similar lenses.
Like the partnership between monk and cat, that between author, Jo Ellen Bogart and artist Sydney Smith is totally in harmony; and the outcome of their collaboration is so much more than the sum of its parts.

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Footpath Flowers

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Footpath Flowers
JonArno Lawson and Sydney Smith
Walker Books
To me this is a poem in pictures – poetry in motion only without the words and a pretty near perfect one too; an ode to young children, to the small wonders of nature, to joy in fact. The whole book is a small treasure.
Hand-in-hand, a child (I think a girl) and a man walk, through an urban landscape seemingly without speaking to one another. He is preoccupied with his mobile, the shopping and getting home. The child however, keeps stopping to pick the wild flowers that grow out – as wild flowers do – from all manner of cracks and corners;

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she smells each one lovingly and soon collects a small bunch. But then, still paying attention to the small things around, she notices a dead bird on the path and with due reverence, leaves her first bouquet on the bird.

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Next to receive her attention is a man (homeless?) snoozing on a park bench: he too receives a floral gift, as does a dog

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and once home she bestows floral offerings on her mum and her siblings. That leaves her just one flower:

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and she’s still walking. Whither next we wonder?

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Those of us who work with young children know that they often exhibit – like the child here – a sense of awe and wonder, a connectedness with nature and with their fellow beings and given opportunities for living in the moment, they demonstrate that felt sense, or sometimes even flow state, that young children can inhabit. To me this book is a demonstration of that and it’s achieved by its creators really getting down to the child’s eye level and showing us things from that perspective. I cannot praise too much the Canadian poet author’s storyline and the way in which he has left Sydney Smith to translate that into visual poetry with just the right amount of sentiment and judicious use of colour.

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His perspective in both full-page scenes and smaller strip-frames, is always that of the child; and this is key. So too is the fact that at no time does the adult become impatient or harass the child; rather he walks on but waits with outstretched hand at appropriate moments. (Would that every child had such an adult who showed that depth of understanding.)
Full of poignancy, this is a book to revisit and to cherish.

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