“Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” So says the Water Rat to the Mole in Kenneth Grahame’s “The Wind in the Willows.” Here are four illustrated books that heartily subscribe to Rat’s point of view.
LILY LEADS THE WAY (Candlewick, 32 pp., $17.99, ages 4 to 8), by Margi Preus, is aimed at the read-to-me and early-reader set. Lily is the smallest sailboat in her harbor. She’s determined to pass under a drawbridge and sail out into the open water so she can welcome a squadron of tall ships under sail and guide them in. Little Lily is always getting pushed aside by the impatient big kids, who happen to be Great Lakes ore carriers; seagoing freighters known as “salties”; brusque fishing boats; bumptious tugboats; and brazen Coast Guard cutters. But Lily is resolute and gets her chance, scooting under the raised drawbridge and proudly sailing out to meet the tall ships and lead them in safely. Lily’s is a story for little ones, and perhaps especially for younger siblings who will identify with the spirit and gumption of the small in a world dominated by the large and self-important.
One quibble: To this sailor’s eye, Lily, as illustrated by Matt Myers, with her stubby wheelhouse, looks more like a tugboat with a mainsail and jib than like an actual small sailboat — say a Herreshoff 12½, which is very, very close to sailboats you probably drew at age 6.
Some of the sadder sights on the Downeast coast of Maine, where I live, are wooden sailboats that have been left on jack stands in front yards for years and clearly aren’t going to be used anytime soon, if ever. This is sad because wood loves water. Wooden boats need to get wet to stay supple and seaworthy. Out of their element, they parch. Planking crackles and shrinks. Caulking withers. Seams open. Varnish bakes and flakes away. Hulls become leaky and wizened. A wooden boat ashore one season too many is not a happy boat and will, before long, be a collation of scrap lumber and rusted fastenings.
But sometimes, before it’s too late, front-yard sailboats are rescued by determined people. This is what happens to one lucky sailboat and one sailing family in OLD WOOD BOAT (Candlewick, 48 pp., $18.99, ages 4 to 8). Nikki McClure’s stunning paper-cut art illuminates every step of the renovate, restore, recycle and reclaim process, as an old wood boat is scraped, caulked, sanded, painted and polished by her new crew. At the center of the book, a superb cross-section of the boat shows us every single thing on board — from woolen socks to winches — after she has been provisioned and is ready to set out on a cruise. “Old Wood Boat” is an inspiring account of discovering a neglected old thing and transforming her into something beloved and useful. And there’s a glossary of boat-speak included at the end, so young readers can learn to tell a sheet from a shroud, a galley from a gale.
In “The Compleat Cruiser,” L. Francis Herreshoff, America’s greatest designer of wooden sailboats, noted that “simplicity afloat is the surest guarantee of happiness.” But Sal, intrepid hero of Thyra Heder’s SAL BOAT: A Boat by Sal (Abrams, 48 pp., $18.99, ages 4 to 8), has other ideas. Sal is an industrious boy of maybe 9 years old, living in a harbor town that, as rendered in Heder’s wry and witty watercolor illustrations, might be anywhere on the East Coast from Annapolis, Md., to Jonesport, Maine. Longing to feel “the waves moving under his feet,” the ambitious Sal makes up his mind to build himself a boat. He salvages stuff from all over town — mom’s garage, the dump, yard sales, giveaways, carpenters’ discard piles — hauls it in his wagon, and hammers, screws and winches it into an astonishing assemblage that looks like a cross between an outhouse and an Alexander Calder sculpture. The problem: Sal had everything he needed except a plan. So what he’s built is an achievement, certainly. But is it a boat? Will it float? Sal insists it is and it will. But it isn’t and it doesn’t. He’s heartbroken and humiliated, until family, friends and neighbors come together — it takes a village — to help reorganize and refit the glorious whatever-it-is as a houseboat, which is launched and floats. Sal won’t be cruising Penobscot Bay anytime soon, but aboard his houseboat he can finally feel the waves beneath his feet.
Boys and girls — and grown-ups — intrigued by the maritime world of the North Pacific will get much pleasure and a pack of insider knowledge from Tom Crestodina’s WORKING BOATS: An Inside Look at Ten Amazing Watercraft (Little Bigfoot/Sasquatch Books, 56 pp., $19.99, ages 7 to 10). The best boats, on any coast, are almost always local types, designed and built to operate in specific conditions and climates. The examples here are all working boats found on the North Pacific coast from Seattle to western Alaska. They are vividly illustrated, with precise and detailed cross-sections displaying the inner and outer workings of 10 different types of vessels, from salmon trollers (not trawlers!) to halibut schooners, Bristol Bay Gillnetters to double-ended Puget Sound ferries. Young vegetarians be warned: Salmon, halibut and crab fisheries are a big part of the North Pacific seafaring world, and the gear and fishing techniques used by men and women working these fierce waters are realistically pictured and described. “Working Boats” taught this Mainer a lot about life on another coast.
Peter Behrens’s most recent novel is “Carry Me.”