Review of the Day: The Antlered Ship by Dashka Slater, ill. The Fan Brothers
Take any number of picture books published in a given year. Read them all, cover to cover. Digest them. Ponder them. Then, I have no doubt, you’ll want to sort them. You’ll want to categorize them in some way. Maybe it’ll be the same rote categorizations we see all the time. Maybe you’ll get a little goofy. You may, for example, begin to notice how many books involve bespectacled mice breaking down the fourth wall, or a plethora of sentient cheese. But if you take a step back and broaden the fields a little, you can look at picture books in terms of scope. One genre that particularly entices me is the quest picture book. At anywhere between 32 and 48 pages, it would seem impossible that a picture book storyline would have the ability to send its hero on a quest. Yet time and time again, to varying degrees of success, authors and artists have sent their wayward characters off on noteworthy adventures. The latest book to slot neatly into this category is The Antlered Ship. A gorgeous epic filled with equal parts adventure and philosophy, this is one of those books that hankers to be an instant classic and comes darn well close to the mark.
It was Marco that saw the antlered ship when it arrived, lost, at his island’s harbor. Until then he had found that for all that he was bursting with questions about the world (“Why don’t trees ever talk? Why is water so wet?”) none of the other foxes on his island ever took any interest in answering them. Perhaps if he joined the ship and set forth to sail to sea he’d find an island where foxes thought the way he did. The journey, however, is not without peril. The deer that crew it are a fearful bunch and the pigeons that sign on uneasy with the amount of work involved. It is Marco who steers them out of storms and misery. It is the pigeon Victor that leads the ship through the sharpest of rocks. And it is the deer Sylvia gives the orders to fight off piratical invaders. In the end, Marco does not find what he thought he was looking for. He finds something better. He finds friends and a purpose.
So what does a quest picture book entail? Well, first and foremost you need to bond the reader to the main character. This can happen any number of ways. You might see the hero being kind to a friend, as in Nobody Likes a Goblin by Ben Hatke. Or you might make them sympathetic in some way. In Journey by Aaron Becker we see a girl try and fail to get the attention of her mother, father, and older sister. The child reader, regardless of whether or not they have siblings or parents of their own, can relate. Similarly, in The Antlered Ship the fox character is different from its compatriots. The other foxes aren’t mean to it or anything, but when it asks questions ranging from the mundane to the philosophical they respond with honest bafflement. He doesn’t fit in. And instantly we understand why he must leave. Next the adventure must involve travel in some way. Ships do very well in these narratives. Three Bears in a Boat by David Soman, for example, knew this. Finally, there’s the ending. Either the hero goes home, the quest over, or the quest itself is the goal. I think you’ll understand which of these apply to this book.
Not every picture book makes me think long and hard about its moral but The Antlered Ship really gave me food for thought. Not initially, though. The first time I read it I found it visually stimulating but less than entirely enthralling from a storytelling perspective. Happily this feeling changed when I read the book to my small children. Suddenly I found the text improved massively when I was able to read it aloud. This proved to be most true when Marco feels that he has failed in his quest and discusses the matter with Sylvia and Victor. His goal was to find people like himself that are interested in big questions. As it turns out, Sylvia and Victor are not averse to Marco’s questions and are even willing to debate them with him. When he asks, “And what’s the best way to find a friend you can talk to?” they proffer ideas until he concludes, “… I think you make friends by asking them questions.” That’s such an interesting idea to me. It’s basically saying that friendship is largely rooted in showing interest in people outside of yourself. In moving beyond your own self-centered worldview. Not a bad lesson for a picture book, eh?
It seems funny to delay it this long, but I haven’t really said anything about the art so far, have I? This is particularly odd when you consider that for many people the art is going to be the primary draw of the book. The Fan Brothers rose to prominence when their previous book The Night Gardener (not to be confused with the Jonathan Auxier novel of the same name) appeared on a slew of Mock Caldecott and Best Of lists. Suddenly everyone was very interested in what these Fan Brothers might do. For my part, I liked The Night Gardener perfectly well but it didn’t quite do it for me. You know that feeling you get when you know an author or an illustrator is capable of so much more than their most recent project? I knew these guys had an Antlered Ship inside somewhere. I just had to wait around long enough to see it.
And what a visual feast this puppy is too. First and foremost its publisher, Beach Lane Books, has spared no expense in its make-up. They’ve even gone so far as to spend extra money to make the book as pleasant a tactile experience as it is a visible one. Go on. Touch the cover. Feel the high caliber paper stock. I don’t mean to be beholden to blatant pandering on the part of a publisher, but combining that feel with that cover image is a rare bit of marketing genius. Then we get to the art. Where The Night Gardener relegated itself primarily to blues and blacks and grays, The Antlered Ship is a dawn and magic hour story. No sky is ever a clear baby blue. They are are rose and peach at down, gray and white in storms, deep navy and white at night, and sometimes that strange misty white you get on a day when the sky isn’t really any color at all. Watch what the Fan Brothers do with their skies as the book progresses. There’s a method to their madness here.
The delicacy of the images is also of particular note. Watching the care with which they render not just the antlered ship but also the ship of the invading pirates I was reminded of that old seafaring picture book classic, The Island of the Skog by Steven Kellogg. That book too took an interest in sailing and small woodland creatures. Here, the meticulousness of the Fan pens and pencils is not limited to rigging and figureheads. The animals also show a great deal of loving care. The first time you officially meet Victor and his pigeon crew you get a very good look at the iridescent feathers that grace their throats. Rock pigeons are such lovely creatures, it’s nice to see them get their due. The art is also not without humor. I have spent more time than I care to mention staring at deformed pigeon feet on the streets of Manhattan, so giving a pigeon a peg leg seemed an act of mercy as well as humor. Oh. And I should note that if you’re thinking long and hard about how precisely deer and pigeons would go about raising and lowering the sails on a boat as massive as this one, then maybe this is not the book for you.
If I have any objection to the book, it is the ending. Not that the ending is bad or falls flat necessarily. It just happens to be about four pages too long. Slater actually caps off the book’s text perfectly when she writes, “There were so many questions left to answer. And so many more to ask.” The first time I read this aloud I remember giving a satisfied sigh… until I turned that page and found that inexplicably the book was still going. What valuable information is contained on those last four pages? Just the fact that the friends are, indeed, still sailing on the ship together, just as they’d discussed before. Now I know all too well that picture books are hampered considerably by page counts that they cannot shift, no matter how much they’d like to. That’s one of the reasons I like them so much. Just the same, there are workarounds. Wordless breathtaking spreads are one magnificent way of taking care of the issue. The way the book stands now, it feels like the author doesn’t trust the reader to accept that the birds, deer, and fox will continue their adventures and that we need some kind of visual proof.
Like all good adventure tales the story begins with a hero’s quest and takes that hero not to their intended destination, but to what they were actually searching for deep down all along. In this way, the adventure book is not all that different from an adult novel. Joseph Campbell would, I like to think, approve of The Antlered Ship. It is, I should note, a quiet adventure, best suited to bedtimes and one-on-one readings rather than exciting group readalouds. But for those children that are allowed to dive deep into its sweetly saturated pages, the book has the capability of sequestering its images deep into the innermost folds of their little brains. This is a book that will find its ways into their dreams for decades upon decades upon decades to come. Could a book ask for anything more?
On shelves now.
Source: F&G sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- Three Bears in a Boat by David Soman
- The Maggie B by Irene Haas
- The Island of the Skog by Steven Kellogg
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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