SMALL IN THE CITY by Sydney Smith

When you read lots of picture books, as we do around here, you can get a little jaded. Some make me laugh. A few make me tear up. But rarely do I feel surprised, as in “Whoa, I didn’t see that coming.”

Then I read Small in the City by Sydney Smith (Neal Porter Books/Holiday House, 2019).

In the first few spreads, we see a child on a city bus. As she joins the throngs of people on the street, the narration begins:

As the girl (or boy—it could be either) makes her way through dark and sometimes foreboding scenes, she describes the people “who don’t see you,” and the disorienting sights and sounds of the city.

All of which leads to this:

The streets are always busy.

It can make your brain feel like there’s too much stuff in it.

But I know you.

You’ll be all right.

If you want, I can give you some advice.

Then, as snow falls around her, the girl shares her tips for navigating the city: don’t cut through this alley, avoid this yard with the scary dogs, you can hide in this tree. 

But who is the “you” she’s advising?

Reading it the first time, I assume she’s addressing a friend, a fellow small person. And, frankly, it all seems kind of menacing for a child. Then it gets a little odd.

She says the fishmongers “would probably give you a fish if you asked.”

She points out some spots for listening to music, like the church where the choir practices. 

You could perch on the window ledge.

She recommends a favorite park bench where her friend often sits. 

If you see her, say hi.

You could sit on her lap and she will pet you.

Wait . . . pet you??


This “you” she’s been addressing isn’t a person at all.  It’s a cat—as confirmed in the next spread when she tapes a LOST sign to a street lamp.

How did I miss that?

I read the book again to see if it had been obvious all along and I just hadn’t been paying attention.

Nope. This was a deliberate effort to lead the reader astray.

Well done.

As a writer, this book got me thinking about my approach to storytelling. Is there a way to incorporate something unexpected? To surprise the reader? Have I experimented enough?

As a human, it got me thinking about the habitual thought patterns that lead us in certain directions, sometimes based on incorrect assumptions.

And it made me kiss my sweet old dog Sammy, sitting next to me on the couch.

Small in the City is the first book that Sydney Smith—an acclaimed illustrator—both wrote and illustrated himself. According to this interview (well worth a listen), it’s something he’d been thinking about for 12 years—but put off due to things like self-doubt and imposter syndrome (sound familiar, anyone?).

Any lingering self-doubts should be eased by all the praise heaped upon this book, including eight (!) starred reviews.

Have you read it? Or other recent books that have caught you by surprise? I’d love to hear.

Thanks, as always, for reading. And extra thanks for your comments—it’s always great to hear from you!


P.S. The winner of MOON’S FIRST FRIENDS from last month’s giveaway is Becky Scharnhorst. Congratulations, Becky! And many thanks again to Susanna Leonard Hill for visiting!

Linda Ashman

Linda Ashman is the author of more than 45 picture books, as well as The Nuts and Bolts Guide to Writing Picture Books, a how-to guide for picture book writers. Her books have been included on the ‘best of the year’ lists of The New York Times, Kirkus Reviews, the American Library Association, the Children’s Book Council, and The New York Public Library, among others, and have been translated into many languages.


  1. Oh, Linda. I ADORE this book. And, I had the exact same reaction when I read it the first time. It’s a winner, and so is your post.

  2. I love it! OH, the stories a young reader would after listening to this story read to them. thank you.

  3. You’ve confirmed what I’ve heard about this one and I cannot wait to get my hands on it. Thanks for sharing, Linda!

  4. I love the unexpected. Looks like a book I’d love to read. Such detail in the illustrations.

  5. Wow! I did not see that coming either! I was worried about this small child wandering around the city alone. Whew. I need to read this one. Thanks!

  6. I’ve heard about SMALL IN THE CITY but haven’t been able to get it from my library yet. Now I can’t wait to read it! Thanks, Linda!!

  7. Now I see what all the talk about this book is about -sounds wonderful and I love the surprise twist! Congrats!

  8. I teared up reading this. This is just the kind of book I love – and such exquisite illustrations. You feel bundled up and vulnerable with her.

  9. I am a HUGE fan of Sydney Smith’s art, and am excited to read this book. Patiently waiting for it from the library. Thanks for sharing, Linda!

  10. Oh man, this is such a wonderful book! I love the unexpected, the twist at the end. Especially one that tugs a heart string you weren’t expecting. I tried to do that with my last book, Ghost Cat, and love to watch people read it that haven’t read it before…

  11. I had the opportunity to hear Neal Porter talk about this book at a recent workshop. He teased us with the unexpected twist, but didn’t spill the beans. Sounds like I will not be disappointed.

    • Sorry to ruin the surprise element, Kathy! I tried to figure out a way to write about it without revealing the twist, but that was really the whole point of the post. How fabulous you got to hear Neal talk about it!

  12. Janet Frenck Sheets

    I love misdirection in books, but have primarily seen it in humorous works. I look forward to seeing how it’s done in a more serious story.

  13. The illustrations are great. What a neat story.

  14. Love this post, and this book! Thanks for sharing!

  15. The book is brilliant. I was totally fooled until the “pet you” spread. It’s a joy to read and the art is stunning. Thanks for sharing.

  16. Truly, a special book with lovely illustrations.

  17. Wow! This book sounds so wonderful. It certainly has the heart and magic we all aim for. Thank you for sharing it.

  18. I agree this book is AMAZING! What a page turner! I want to write like that. 🙂

  19. Kaye Frances Baillie

    I read this book recently and knew it was a standout. Not only do I love Sydney’s illustration style, but this story was so unique and impressive.

  20. I loved this so much, esp. as I pet my own Benny Boo. I, too, have lost another cat in the woods for a night and a day and another night and felt the child’s anguish.

  21. Jennifer Lane Wilson

    Looking forward to reading this! Sounds like a good read for the chillier days ahead.

  22. There are rule breakers. And amazing stories. Very, very rarely do the two overlap. I am amazed.

  23. I like the idea,the illustrations and the element of surprise. I must say I guessed it was a cat, when the book mentioned the fish.

  24. This looks wonderful! I can’t wait to find it.

  25. I, too, had to go back and re-read this one, Linda. The slow reveal of to whom the narrator is speaking was skillfully done. In fact, I felt the whole design of this book, from shape and size to multiple panel illustrations, all worked together beautifully, making it one well worth repeated explorations despite knowing the “secret.”

  26. I finally got a copy of this from the library. So glad I did! It truly deserves all of the starred reviews & best list inclusions. Thanks for a great review!

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