Wednesday has arrived and that means it is time for another wordless book and excitedly, another great interview with its creator. Today’s book is brand new this year and is absolutely stunning. It is a story about a boy and a paper boat, adventure and disaster, disappointment and joy. Come delight in the beauty of Float by Daniel Miyares, 2015.
This is one of those rare books that I actually got to spy on the shelves before I had heard any buzz about it. Not that it isn’t getting talked about, I just wasn’t paying attention apparently. Its trim-size is uniquely long and narrow and the cover art alone sends out muted flares of alert to its brilliant content.
The first thing you see when you open it, are those end pages pictured above that illustrate folding a paper boat. I find them captivating. Partly because the practice of origami is something I am always drawn to, but not particularly great at. And I desperately love beautiful instructional illustration.
Also, be sure to peek under that dust jacket. It’s always a good practice, for you never know what special delights are hidden beneath.
The story opens with an up-close view of a spread out newspaper and two sets of hands. It is a perfect compliment for those opening paper boat instructions. The colors are muddy and muted with very little definition aside from the edges of the shapes and a small portion of a photo on the newspaper showing a sailboat. Brilliance. It is a slow beginning to the story, speaking of the patient process of creation before enjoyment. The muted palette and muddy features bring to mind the inkiness and texture of newspaper and the slight bleed of ink they always leave behind.
In the following pages, the colors stay muted, aside from the appearance of one of those sets of hands in the form of a boy and his rigid, sleek, yellow rain gear. The yellow rain coat, hat, and boots are classic and stand in beautiful contrast to the moody grays of the backdrop.
The boy wanders outside, paper boat in hand and begins his adventure. He is waiting for rain. We know it. His rain gear knows it. And the paper boat is ready. The sky gets darker with every panel until rain begins to pour. On one spread, we can see very little, aside from rain streaks and a blur of yellow. It is a stunning spread, perhaps my favorite, but there are too many beauties to choose from.
The waiting and the survival of the downpour was not in vain. The rain leaves, quickly as it came, and the boy sends the boat on its maiden voyage. It is a calm float. But it swiftly escalates into puddle jumping, stomping, and leaping. Another puddle is discovered, and is intriguing in its flow like a stream down the street. The boy eagerly tries it, but is surprised when the boat takes off. His paper boat is a worthy vessel, floating more swiftly than he can keep up. He chases, but loses and the boat slips down a drain and into darkness. The darkness is so enveloping in its richness. We feel the weight of the loss.
The boy mopes along, hovers around a bridge and spies a water-logged piece of newspaper emerge from a drain. He fishes it out and walks home mournfully. He is greeted at home, comforted, and dried off. His joy slowly seeps back in through the gloom with a silly blow-drying of his hair and the pouring of a cup of hot cocoa. And along with this we see another newspaper spread out, this time with another picture in focus. There is going to be another adventure, but you’ll have to go find the book to see. (And find more awesome end pages!)
This is a book that we are already coming back to again and again. There are deep sighs of satisfaction and big smiles every time we close it. It is a modest, muted, precious experience of art. So let’s unfold why it works so fantastically well. (Sorry, could not resist that perfectly placed pun.)
First, the simple plot. It is such a simple story that makes way for a lovely, illustrated telling. Almost all of the wordless books I have highlighted have used a very simple concept and then allowed the illustrations to explode with the detailing. While Miyares’ art remains loose and spare with the details; he works magic with the layout, color palette, and pacing. My three year old was reading it to herself today while I wrote, and when she closed it she turned to me and sighed, “That boy is so lucky!” She totally fell for the book, all on her own, and was enthralled with the simplicity and excitement of it.
Another part of the excellent formula of this book is the pacing. We want to know what happens to the beloved paper boat. It is funny, isn’t it, how attached we get to simple objects? But we love basic things that give our imagination life and movement. We are living vicariously through the boy as he sails that special, handmade paper boat. And we feel the joy and pain of its adventure. The page turns pull you along, as does the well-placed and not overused panels, and especially the long and narrow format. Your eyes are pulled along the page with the movement of the boat. And when the angle shifts from moving to straight-on, you stop with it and experience the moment.
Lastly, I am running out of adjectives to describe the greatness of Miyares’ art! While I love the expression of his style, I actually think the even more important part of the brilliance of the illustration is the strength of his color palette and execution. Miyares shared in his interview with Jules at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast that he created the backdrop to feel rain-soaked and then cut shapes out of his painted textures to give the rain gear its sharp, slick feeling. It works so wonderfully and gives his dynamic layouts the perfect finish for a stellar book.
With that final bit of gushing, let’s move on to hearing from the creator, Daniel Miyares. I am so thrilled that Daniel took time to answer my questions and give us even more insight on his new book. Join my conversation with the master paper-folder himself:
Question: What motivated you to create a wordless picture book as opposed to a traditional text + illustration book?
Daniel Miyares: Float actually started as a single drawing of a boy floating a paper boat in a puddle on a rainy day. I kept imagining out before that moment and then after until I had what seemed like a complete story. So from the get go it was definitely driven by the visual narrative. I played with a lot of different variations of the story. At one point I was even exploring the text as a kind of sound poem. I could hear the sounds of a rainy day as I was making the drawings. In the end though the visual narrative seemed to say all that needed to be said.
I want to always keep an open mind when it comes to how I evolve my stories. I’m very fortunate that I’ve got some first class creative folks in my personal and professional life that I can bounce ideas off of. As I was working through the concept with the team at Simon & Schuster, my fantastic editor Kristin Ostby said, “Why not make it wordless?”…and we did because like I mentioned before, everything else I was trying on top of the visual story seemed superfluous.
Since working on Float, I’ve become a big believer in letting the story tell me what needs to happen. I know that sounds flaky, but force fitting things into stories never yields very good results for me. The picture book format demands authenticity and it’s hard to find that with a formula.
Q: Is there a specific storyline to Float that you hope the reader gets or is it a bit open-ended in your opinion?
DM: On the surface Float is a story about a boy, his paper boat and a rainy day adventure, but underneath I hope the takeaways are more about things like play, resourcefulness, joy, loss and resiliency as well as how a parent can play a role in those experiences.
Q: Was it a more challenging experience to create a wordless book than your text books or is every book different, period?
DM: Every book is certainly different for me, but making a wordless picture book did require some special considerations. One of the biggest differences is when you’re pacing the story. With both text and image there are built in mechanisms to tell the reader to speed up or slow down. Punctuation and type design work like traffic signs to me. When you take those elements away the flow of imagery has to pick up the slack. I often found myself thinking in terms of emotional beats. How many beats or notes did I need to take the reader naturally from here to there?
Q: The trim-size for the book, which I particularly love, is much smaller than the standard picture book. Was that part of your original vision or did it develop into that?
DM: I wanted the trim-size to be something intimate but still cinematic. The long horizontals were such a critical design element in the story. The proportions of the book needed to accommodate it. I believe the AD/Designer on the project, Chloe Foglia, described how she thought it should feel “precious.” She was right.
Q: Is there a soundtrack that you hear for Float?
DM: Yes! A real introspective jazz piano piece. Maybe it’s playful at times, but overall understated.
Q: Do you consider wordless picture books a better solitary experience or more exciting as a read-aloud?
DM: I think a good thing about a wordless picture book is how it engages pre-readers and allows them to make discoveries on their own. My son is four years old and I often see him in his room after bedtime with a flashlight flipping through his books. He’s not reading yet, but he certainly cherishes stories.
Having said that I also think a good book can be interacted with in many different ways. I don’t feel like it has to be an either or proposition. This past summer I had the opportunity to do a segment on local radio about wordless books and prior to the segment the producer recorded his young son telling the story of Float. It was a magical account. It made me so happy to hear him go through that journey in his own honest way. He hit all the highs and lows. He didn’t miss a thing, but he also made it new.
Oh, and I’ve gotten lots of suggestions of what the little boy’s name should be in the book.
Q: Have you ever shared Float in a storytime? Do you have tips for how it or any other wordless picture books could be read aloud?
DM: Yes, I have. I’ve gotten to share it with a range of people from kindergartners to art school students. I’m amazed at what comes up. I learn something new about my book each time. With the younger crowd I like to spend a lot of time asking questions about what’s happening or get them to talk about what they would do in that situation. The conversation becomes richer than the story. It’s also important to linger on the spreads. I don’t like to rush the emotions. It’s a simple story, but there’s a lot to feel through. I’m ok with hanging out in the disappointment for a bit, because it makes the ending that much more satisfying.
Q: Do you have any favorite wordless picture books?
DM: One of my all time favorites is The Silver Pony by Lynd Ward. It’s an oldie, but his story telling is so spot on and a little strange. I can’t stop going back to it.
Q: And lastly, because you never really read a picture book alone and I adore brainstorming book groupings, do you have any books that you consider to pair well with Float, wordless or not?
DM: I came across this old book called How to Make ORIGAMI by Isao Honda. It’s really fun and it has all sorts of animals and objects you can make with folded paper. There are great illustrations that accompany the steps. I think it would be great to have a pile of paper on hand and make a bunch of stuff to play with after reading Float.
Thanks so much to Daniel for joining the conversation with his answers! Now I am curious what kind of names for the boy he has received. I hadn’t even thought to name him!
I hope you pick this book up. I promise you won’t be disappointed. And make sure to have some extra paper on hand. Those end pages are meant to be explored and start your own adventure!