"Deep down under that sea, my father is digging for coal..."

Who's it for?

Sharing at storytime or reading independently   5-8 years

Sharing and exploring through creative cross-curricular activities   5-10 years

Adapt our activities to suit your children’s interests and abilities

About this book

Told as a ‘day in the life’ of a boy living in a 1950’s coastal mining town, this expansive, airy book is full of the sights and smells of summer. From my house, I can see the sea, says our young narrator, and so can we - sparkling in the sunshine beyond the family’s kitchen window. Light streams through the open door and silhouetted against it is Father, off to join the other miners on their way to work. The boy spends his day roaming the clifftops, running errands for his mother and playing with friends. He doesn’t forget the sea, though - how could he? Deep beneath it, his father is digging for coal.

Observant readers will spot more than they’re being told. There’s a problem in the tunnel: will Father come home? The tension is subtle and swiftly relieved, but the shadows cast by this book are real.  Our narrator and his friend will go down the pit, just like their fathers and grandfathers before them, because that’s the way it goes... and once the dazzling summer light has faded we’re left to wonder what becomes of them.

It’s in the quiet moments that we see the stories we share 

Children don’t need to know this book is set in the 1950’s or understand coalmining to enjoy it – it’s full of life and disarmingly accessible. But there are many layers here, together with some hidden depths, making this a richly satisfying starting point for creative exploration.

Carefully-observed moments that are anchored in their time and place, yet relevant to all of us


Sharing and talking about this book

Look at the book’s cover and talk about it.

Do you have questions you’d like to ask the boy on the roof? What’s he doing there? What could he be thinking? What kind of story could this be?

Talk about the (paid and unpaid) jobs that people do. 

What do these jobs involve? Do the workers wear special clothes? Where do they work? Is anything produced?

Share the book and talk about the story, characters and pictures. 

Did anything surprise you about this book? Did it remind you of anything? How do the pictures make you feel? Which image do you like best, and why? What questions do you have about this book now that you’ve read it?

Coming back from the shops with Mum's groceries               Copyright Sydney Smith for Walker Books

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How did you use this book? We’d love to hear about your experiences!

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What next? Activities...


"Deep down under that sea, my father is digging for coal..."         Copyright Sydney Smith for Walker Books

Look at the underwater pictures. Pretend you’re working in a tunnel beneath the sea. Can you use your body to show the limits of the space? (pushing up against the rocks; touching the sides of the tunnel..) If you had to dig for coal in this tunnel, how would you move? Explore individually, then develop in small groups. Showback and discuss. Can you find or compose some ‘mining music’ to accompany your performances?

Working as a class, design and make a sea-themed sensory tunnel for younger children to explore. Join extra-large cardboard boxes or buy a budget pop-up tunnel and customize it. Cut holes to add sensory experiences, either inside or outside your tunnel. Be inventive, but safe - think about light (acetates and torches?), sound (recorded by your children? windchimes made from spoons?), textures (strips of different fabrics inside the tunnel? Bowls of sand to touch?) and smells (in pots with perforated lids?)

Once you’ve constructed and tested your tunnel, invite some nursery children for a sea-themed storytime. Create a storytelling corner with blue drapes and ask your visitors to crawl through your tunnel to reach it!

Look at the wordless spread showing four images of the front door. What’s happening? How do we know time is passing? (Look at the shadows…) What could Father be thinking as he opens the door?

Turn the page and talk about the next illustration. What is the boy is thinking as he greets his father?

Examine and discuss the picture of the family at the table. What could Father be telling the boy? What will Mother say? 

Evening meal         Copyright Sydney Smith for Walker Books


Work in groups of three to roleplay Father’s homecoming. What will Father tell the family about his day? What will Mother and the boy say? Record dialogues and use to write text to accompany the illustration of the supper table

Make a collection of cups – include lots of shapes, textures, colours, patterns and sizes - then choose one and talk about it. What does your cup look like? Feel like? Why did you select it? 

Dad's cup, Mum's cup     Copyright Sydney Smith for Walker Books

Look at the picture showing the cups on the balcony rail. When Sydney Smith painted them, he had to look carefully and draw exactly what he could see. Use high-quality media (charcoal, chalk pastels, graphite) and lots of colours and textures of paper to draw your cup in different ways, then choose a ‘best version’ and make photocopies of it. Use these to practise different watercolour washes and other techniques before working on your final picture. Display your finished pieces alongside the actual cups.

Look at the seascapes in this book. How do they make you feel, and why? List as many words and phrases as you can to describe them, then choose one to write about.

Coming home from the shops         Copyright Sydney Smith for Walker Books

Create Sydney Smith-style seascapes using rolls of paper and media such as watercolours, powder paint, wax crayons, pastels, chalks, inks and PVA. Explore techniques like wax resist, bubble painting, layering tissue with watered-down glue, sprinkling dry powder on wet watercolour. Which do you prefer? Which will you use on your seascape? Work collaboratively using big brushes and sponges (and your fingers!) to create your masterpiece.

Look at the third spread (coalyard and trucks). Discuss, then list everything these pictures tell you about coalmining.

Off to work...         Copyright Sydney Smith for Walker Books

Look at the spreads showing miners working beneath the sea. How do these pictures add to your knowledge? (It’s dark underground, miners use picks and electric cutters, they take the coal out in trucks, the tunnels are dangerous…)

What else would you like to know about coalmining? List your questions and use non-fiction books and other resources to answer them. Where does coal come from? How was it made? How do we use it? What else can we use for power instead of coal?

Arriving at the pit         Copyright Sydney Smith for Walker Books

Look at the page showing six square ‘memory vignettes’.

"I think about the bright days of summer..."         Copyright Sydney Smith for Walker Books

For each image, describe what you can see, then talk about the sounds, tastes, textures, feelings and smells that could be associated with this memory. 

What do children remember about their summer? Share as a class, then choose six summer ‘memory moments’ and draw them as vignettes inspired by Sydney Smith. Describe them verbally and write about them.

Do your children remember anything about summer last year? Discuss as a whole class and make notes, then see if you can remember anything about summer before that. How far back can you go? Record your memories on a timeline. 

The boy in this book is talking about a summer long ago. Do you know someone who could share memories of the 1950’s with your children? Display photos of your neighbourhood, pictures of children’s family members in the 1950’s and objects from that time.

Chalk a timeline outdoors to show how many years have passed since the 1950’s and have fun jumping along it. Can children count the years in twos and fives and tens? 

Where do you live? Find out about your village, town or city. Go for explorer walks, collecting photos, notes, voice memos and found objects to record what you see, discover, feel and do along the way. Use to create annotated maps of your adventures. 

Can you draw a map of the place featured in this book and mark the locations the boy visits and talks about?

Your town might not be by the sea, but maybe it’s in the hills or by the river or full of people. If you had to finish a Town Is… sentence for your place, what would you say?

Draw pictures to illustrate your Town is… sentences, or join them to create a collaborative poem.

Walking down the main street         Copyright Sydney Smith for Walker Books

Describe what you can see in the first spread. Where is this house? Who lives here? Does this room remind you of anywhere? How does this picture make you feel?

Breakfast in the house by the sea         Copyright Sydney Smith for Walker Books

There are more illustrations of the boy’s house later in the book. What else can we learn about his house and family by looking at them? 

Draw a detailed picture of room in your house and describe it, verbally and in writing.

Make a timeline showing everything that happens to the boy in this book. Add post-its showing what he hears, tastes and feels - lupins rustling in the wind, a glass of milk, butterflies in his stomach… How is the boy’s day like yours? How is it different? 

Take photos of your children at key moments and use to create a visual timeline - a corridor makes a great place for a timeline display and you can extend by adding photos of other people at work at the same times in your school or neighbourhood. What’s the Headteacher doing while you’re working on your maths? When does the lorry deliver produce to the supermarket?  Talk and write about your timeline.

Running errands for Mum at the local shop           Copyright Sydney Smith for Walker Books

Use the book’s text to structure writing about a day at home:

When I wake up it goes like this…. 

First thing I see when I look out the window is…

When I go out in the morning, it goes like this…. 

When I get home for lunch it goes like this….

At supper time it goes like this…

At night-time it goes like this….

There are wordless image sequences in this book (Dad arriving home; the boys swinging…) Look at them carefully and talk about what is shown, and how, and what’s left out. Use to inspire wordless image sequences of your own.


If you liked this, try...

Footpath Flowers by Jon Arno Lawson and Sydney Smith, Walker Books 2016 

The White Cat and the Monk by Jo Ellen Bogart and Sydney Smith, Walker Books 2016

Sunshine by Jan Ormerod, reprinted 2005 by Frances Lincoln Books

Sam and Dave Dig a Hole by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen, Walker Books 2015

King of the Sky by Nicola Davies and Laura Carlin, published by Walker Books 2018

My Place by Nadia Wheatley and Donna Rawlins, 20th Anniversary edition published 2009 by Walker Books Australia

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois by Amy Novesky and Isabelle Arsenault, Abrams Books 2016

Town is by the Sea won illustrator Sydney Smith the CILIP 2018 Kate Greenaway medal

CILIP runs a Carnegie Greenaway shadowing scheme which includes resources for group leaders – to find them click here

This article first appeared in Teach Primary Magazine: to find it online at teachwire.net click here

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This article/information may be printed freely for use in schools and other learning settings but may not be reproduced in any other format without the permission of Cast of Thousands


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