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‘Small in the City’ by Sydney Smith – Greenaway winner 2021

This year the award for the most outstanding picture book of the year published in the UK, the Kate Greenaway Medal, was given to Small in the City. It is written and illustrated by second-time winner Sydney Smith.


Published by: Walker Books, 2020. Available from Amazon.

Some details about the 2021 winner Sydney Smith and of the Greenaway Shadowers’ Award winner, Sharon King-Chai, my review of Small in the City, and a brief history of the Greenaway medal.

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Small in the City is a handsomely illustrated, child-led story of a child travelling alone in a city on a very important quest.

In his acceptance speech, Sydney Smith says:

This book does not have an easy ending, but it does end with a hug as does any journey worth taking. I believe that will be one of the most beautiful rewards at the end of our difficult journey. The promise of reuniting with a friend and having a laugh or sharing a hug with a loved one. All with the knowledge that we got through this together. And that it was well worth it.

The story of ‘Small in the City’

Sydney Smith
Sydney Smith

Not all picture book illustrators write the story, nor do they need to. However, here is a book that essentially has a shared narrative in text and in illustration. At first it is unclear why the child, who I took to be a little boy, is travelling alone on public transport. It is a cold, dark, frightening city that he emerges into, rain lashes down, becomes sleet, becomes snow, but still the child marches on alone across traffic-heavy roads. He takes no notice of passers-by, and they ignore him. At first he appears to be about 4 years old, but is perhaps 8 or 9. Whatever, he’s a child alone.

It isn’t until we approach the final page that we know what the quest was about. On a second read we discover visual and verbal clues that are carefully concealed and revealed on many pages. It is a pity to reveal more, as the mystery and revelation are integral to the book. However, this award is for the artwork, not for the story, and so I will say that the story is about a child looking for a lost cat.

Sydney Smith’s illustrations and font

The tones of Small in the City are sombre; blacks, browns, greys, dull and wintry shades, and appropriate to the theme of aloneness. Railings and yawning doors, alleys, fences, shadows, have a monstruous quality. My favourite image is one that shows the child’s splintered reflection in many shop windows. It’s a beautiful image, both visually and metaphorically. What can put him together again?

This child knows his way round the city, but through his perspective the reader has the feeling of being dwarfed by huge buildings and nearly deafened by the clamour of traffic and people. Smith has a fine draughtsmanship in his drawings of skyscrapers and towering buidlings. There is little comfort in this sometimes surreal landscape, the sweeping rain, the bitter snow. As he moves through it, the boy tells his lost cat how to survive it.

The font is bold on clear pages, making the simple sentences highly accessible to all child readers. None of the text is lost in the illustrations.

My thoughts on ‘Small in the City’

I like this picture book, difficult though it is. I like the resilience and determination of the child as he shoulders his way, head-down, through this totally unfriendly environment. To this child, nothing else matters beyond his quest. Little by little the story unfolds in the skilled telling of author/illustrator Sydney Smith. On a first reading, you will want to ask “Why?” on every page. This is deliberate. Why is such a small child on his own? Who is the ‘you’, he refers to? etc.

Every child will respond to the warmth of the hug that the child recives at the close of the book. It is, essentially a book about love, which is made even stronger by the comfortless landscape. It’s not a book to flick through. The visual imagery is stunning, and repays some concentration and work on the part of the reader and their sharer. Sydney Smith’s Small in the City is a picture book that will linger in my mind for some time.

Some responses by children to ‘Small in the City’

The most important reader of a picture book has to be a child. However talented the artist, however major the award, a book only works if the child reader responds to it – better still, if they respond positively!

So I asked four young readers to have a look at it with their parents, and give me their thoughts.

Four year old Charlie was too frightened by the illustrations to finish it, even when guided by his mother. He spent little time looking at the illustrations, and couldn’t relate to the text when it was read to him.

Six year old Daniel didn’t respond well to it, either, in that it didn’t interest him enough to do more than flick through it.

So Small in the City was too old in concept and execution for these children.

Nine year old Iona amd her eleven year old brother thought at first it was about a homeless or refugee girl, or perhaps a lost child. Iona said the illustrations made her feel really sad and they were just right for the story. When she was told what the story was really about she was intrigued and really interested to find the ‘clues’. She was so happy when the ‘girl and her mother’ were re-united, as she thought. Children love a happy ending!

Which is interesting, because in his acceptance speech Sydney Smith said the story doesn’t have a happy ending, Now that confused me! So the paw prints in the snow…?

‘Town is by the Sea’ – Sydney Smith’s previous Greenaway winner

In 2018 Sydney Smith was awarded the Greenaway medal for his excellent illustrations for Town is by the Sea, written by Joanne Schwartz.


Published by Walker Books. Available from Amazon.

About the Greenaway Medal

The Kate Greenaway Medal is a British literary award for “distinguished illustration in a book for children”. Like the Carnegie medal it was originally administered by the Library Association, and is now conferred by the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP). (See also my review of the 2021 Carnegie winner, Look Both Ways by Jason Reynolds.)

The medal is named after the 19th-century English illustrator of children’s books Kate Greenaway (1846–1901).

It was established in 1955 but in that year no book was thought suitable for the award. The first medal was awarded in 1957 to writer/illustrator Edward Ardizzone for Tim All Alone (Oxford, 1956). Some of the most-loved illustrators of our times have won the Greenaway Medal, such as Quentin Blake, Anthony Browne, Shirley Hughes, Jackie Morris…

The Greenaway Shadowers’ Award

In recent years CILIP have introduced a Greenaway Shadowers’ Award, as they have with the Carnegie Medal. Schools and libraries read the shortlisted books and make their own choice. It is naturally a tremendously exciting award both for the followers and the recipient. This year’s Greenaway Shadowers’ Award goes to Sharon King-Chai for her beautiful folk-tale Starbird, a book that shimmers with shiny silver foil and intricate drawings.


Published by Two Hoots. Available from Amazon.

Starbird by Sharon King-Chai
Sharon King-Chai
Sharon King-Chai


Many congratulations to Sydney Smith and Sharon King-Chai for their outstanding achievements.

More congratulations are due to Sydney Smith for winning one of America’s most prestigious awards. The 2021 Boston Globe–Horn Book Award for Picture Book was presented to author Jordan Scott and illustrator Sydney Smith for I Talk Like a River, published by Neal Porter Books, an imprint of Holiday House, in the USA, and by Walker Books in the UK.

My own Greenaway-shortlisted books

The wonderful artist Jane Ray was shortlisted for the Kate Greenaway Medal in 2001 and 2005 for her illustrations of two of my picture books: Classic Fairy Tales and Jinnie Ghost.

Classic Fairy Tales by Berlie Doherty, 2016 edition
Classic Fairy Tales
Jinnie Ghost by Berlie Doherty
Jinnie Ghost

Your comments

Maybe can you suggest any other picture books about children and their pets? Let me know in the comments box further down!


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Berlie Doherty

Berlie Doherty is the author of the best-selling novel, Street Child, and over 60 more books for children, teenagers and adults, and has written many plays for radio, theatre and television. She has been translated into over twenty languages and has won many awards, including the Carnegie medal for both Granny Was a Buffer Girl and Dear Nobody, and the Writers’ Guild Award for both Daughter of the Sea and the theatre version of Dear Nobody. She has three children and seven grandchildren, and lives in the Derbyshire Peak District with Alan James Brown. Her most recent books are Far From Home and Joe and the Dragonosaurus. Her latest novel The Haunted Hills will be published in 2022. See the About me page for more information.

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