Undreamed Waters, Unexpected Shores

THE WANDERER
By Peter Van den Ende

THE LIGHTS & TYPES OF SHIPS AT NIGHT
Written by Dave Eggers
Illustrated by Annie Dills

Like many great 19th-century novels, Peter Van den Ende’s “The Wanderer” begins with the birth of the main character, who quickly sets off on a series of extraordinary adventures. Our hero meets many colorful characters and experiences great trials and setbacks, as well as violence and despair. But at the end, our hero — battered and exhausted — is transformed. But the hero of “The Wanderer” is a paper boat, and there is almost no language at all.

Instead, we have 96 pages of black-and-white pen-and-ink drawings. The technical aspect of the work is mind-boggling, especially the masterly crosshatching. Staring at the images, I couldn’t stop imagining Van den Ende, pen in hand, drawing each line, one after the other, creating work that seems to defy the passage of time, and all known resources of patience and imagination. Imagine Shaun Tan having an aquatic love child with Edward Gorey, from a family tree that includes Tim Burton, Salvador Dalí and Jacques Cousteau, and you’ll begin to get the idea … but not quite.

I reread the book several times before I tried to write about it. The plot, as outlined above, begins with a young sailor and a mysterious black-clad figure with a crescent-moon-shaped head. They work together (like parents?) to fold a large piece of paper into the shape of a boat, which they set to sea. The paper boat almost immediately becomes an object of curiosity to various sea creatures. But the boat itself, which, being a boat, has no face (and no name or gender), seems sentient, and full of its own curiosity. Eyeless, it somehow looks right back at everything.

Van den Ende, in an interview about the book, talks about the importance of bravery, and what the boat is feeling, yet in the book he never tells us what those feelings are. Instead, we are given the opportunity to experience what the boat experiences. In this way we are able to feel what the boat might be feeling. Le bateau, c’est nous.

What type of journey is this paper boat on, exactly? Well, that’s hard to say, and it’s probably best for you to find out for yourself. But I’ll tell you there is danger, wonder, magic, surprise and awe. There are sea monsters and pearl divers. There’s the threat from pollution and an environmental disaster. There’s a submarine, which, if you look closely, you’ll see is actually powered by, and completely filled up with, a single gigantic fish. There’s a massive glowing shelf of ice in the middle of a dark ocean that elicited an actual gasp from me when I turned the page to discover it. Why? Was it the solidity of the thing? The way it emanated light? The fact that it had more of the white paper visible and unbroken than any single drawing that had appeared before it? I’m not sure.

The few words I could find in the entire book were the names written on the sides of gigantic ships the paper boat comes in contact with during its voyage. I Googled all of these unrecognizable, strange-sounding words, and each one turned out to be something very real, and they each expanded on the world of the book. Some were Latin words, some were the genera of whales or giant squids, and two, intriguingly, turned out to be 19th-century illustrators who drew pictures for Jules Verne’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.”

This is Van den Ende’s debut as a bookmaker. It was first published in the Netherlands and has begun appearing in other countries around the world. According to the publisher, Van den Ende works as a nature guide in the Cayman Islands, which I can’t say is completely surprising to me. I’d love to go for a walk with him and have him tell me about the world around us, to hear how the sense of wonder that infuses his images comes through in his language.

With “The Wanderer” filling my thoughts, I recently stumbled upon a video interview with Maurice Sendak in which he talks about his love for the visionary poet and artist William Blake. In the video, Sendak says: “I can’t figure out what it is … what draws me to him so much … because I don’t understand him. … I don’t know what the hell he’s talking about. But I love him. Like, if I were religious, I would feel that way about whatever. He’s an illustrator, I am an illustrator. He illustrates poems — his own poems and mythical dream poems. I guess it’s his profound belief in something. It sounds kind of idiotic, but I believe him. I believe in his passion.”

I love Van den Ende’s passion, and I wonder what he might want us to take away from his book. Here’s my guess: Go out and explore. Don’t be afraid to set off into the unknown. Love the natural world and treat it with respect because the challenges are worth it, and in the end you will be transformed. Yes, danger lurks out there, but so do treasures and magic and wonder, and there’s a good chance someone is waiting to welcome you home. I know it might sound crazy, but I believe him.

Meanwhile, back out on the water, be on the lookout for Dave Eggers and Annie Dills’s “The Lights & Types of Ships at Night,” which is as wonder-filled, in its own way, as “The Wanderer.” Here, the wonder is firmly rooted in the real world. After a brief introduction in which our attention is brought to familiar words like “ships,” “the sea,” “night” and “beauty,” the narrator asks, “But did you realize that of all the world’s most beautiful sights, there is nothing more beautiful than a ship and its lights on the sea at night?” Say that sentence out loud. It will give you a good sense of the hypnotic, wavelike rhythm of Eggers’s text. “This is true. This is a factual book,” the narrator declares, and for the rest of the story we chase the idea of beauty across the world, ship by ship, culture by culture, light by light. Every time the narrator seems to find the most beautiful example, another ship pops up and off we go.

Each of Dills’s double-page images shows us a glowing, soft-focused wonder, illuminated like the otherworldly multicolored extravaganza at the climax of Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”

This all continues until it’s grown late, and we are tired, and we find ourselves at home (well, at home in a place that’s appropriate for this story), where we can reassess the true meaning of beauty and happiness.

But before you float off, this book offers two surprises. The first involves the cover, which offers much more than meets the eye. The second involves all the tiny type on the copyright page at the end, which I highly encourage you to read. It will make you immediately want to go back and look once more through the entire book. Turns out we weren’t alone on the journey. Isn’t that comforting to know?

Brian Selznick is the author and illustrator of “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” and “Wonderstruck.”

THE WANDERER
By Peter Van den Ende
96 pp. Levine Querido. $21.99.
(Ages 8 and up)

THE LIGHTS & TYPES OF SHIPS AT NIGHT
Written by Dave Eggers
Illustrated by Annie Dills
32 pp. McSweeney’s. $18.99.
(Ages 6 to 10)

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