This past week’s winter solstice, overlapping with the rarely seen conjunction of planets Jupiter and Saturn, had me rethinking and rereading a similarly special, mysteriously meaningful new picture book, The Wanderer (2020). As I mused about how we rejoice each year, anticipating the brighter days that reliably follow our darkest night, I wondered about what other predictable rarities, such as that planetary conjunction, might remain beyond our sight. What might we do to explore and find such “unknowns”? With The Wanderer, Dutch author/illustrator Peter Van Den Ende stirs such questions, providing answers that provocatively yoke real-life situations to imaginary ones.
Readers young and old will enjoy poring over his pen and ink, cross-hatched drawings. These black and white images detail the adventures of a paper boat as it journeys across seas surrounding continents shaped like ours yet populated by strange creatures unlike any in our known world. Fish with human hands and horses, tigers, and elephants with fins are just some of the chimeras Van Den Ende depicts. Lavishly detailed in frequent full or double-page spreads, sometimes employing Escher-like patterns, his visual story shows some of these creatures helping the storm-tossed boat while others threaten it. One huge fish even ominously stands on a stack of shipwrecked vessels! Midway through the book, one of these hybrid, human-shaped creatures, along with a cat, boards the boat, joining it on its adventures.
I am hard-put to choose which scenes here are my favorite: those depicting multitudinous life below the sea surface or the steampunk ships and cities the wanderers encounter. All are compelling in their use of fulsome detail and apt variation of dark with light backgrounds. Nor can I definitively explain the book’s concluding images, which harken back to the paper boat’s creation by two enigmatic figures, a bare-footed, t-shirt wearing human and an elaborately-costumed humanoid with crescent horns. The Wanderer’s end shows its strange humanoid leaving the rescued boat to join another figure, depicted solely by its bare feet. What does this seeming reunion mean? And what is its importance in relation to the multifarious events, seascapes, and landscapes of the boat’s journey? No helpful clues to these questions are found in the book’s few words, consisting of obscure ship names, which turn out to refer to actual submarines or whales. Perhaps an answer lies in its creator’s brief video, where he describes the boat as “fragile,” and says that “fragility should never be an excuse for not doing something difficult.” While the “brave” boat does not know its “destination, it really wants to find it.” Similarly, I think it may be the reader’s journey through The Wanderer which is more important than its concluding destination.
Eager to experience a bit of this journey? Its small press publisher, Levine Querido, has generously made The Wanderer’s enticing first fourteen pages available online here. You and your young readers may enjoy this mysterious opening, now comfortably assured about the boat’s future, just as we know that winter darkness will be followed by brighter days.
Finally, though, I should note, as I am drafting this entry on Christmas Eve Day, that for devout Christians their ultimate destination is already known and cherished. For them, the Appalachian Christmas carol “I Wonder as I Wander” expresses the solace of their religion. Even non-believers such as I can still appreciate this carol’s haunting melody and lyrical refrain.
Happy holidays and a happier new year!