As Tolstoy purportedly said, “All great literature is one of two stories: a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.” Maybe that’s not entirely true, but there are certainly many stories about journeys, whether the book follows a traveler as they leave on a journey, or observes a community when a traveler arrives. In both cases, somebody is encountering an unfamiliar world. Here, then, are 19 books about travels: about exploring worlds unknown, welcoming strangers, and unexpected journeys.
This wordless picture book shows a young boy finding a key. He leaves his world—populated by sour-faced people in black and white—and goes through a mysterious door, where he (quite literally) runs into a strange, pointy-beaked creature carrying an instrument case. As he explores further, he eventually meets some friendly creatures who invite him to a picnic, and discovers there are plenty of other doors that open into this bizarre, colorful world. The various creatures all speak in little speech bubbles with strange markings, though you can tell that there are groupings of “types” of languages that they’re speaking. It’s a fun book about being open to adventure and friendship, even in the face of the unfamiliar.
Another wordless book, Red Again is a followup to The Red Book, and shows a kid finding a red book on the street. He opens it up to find a picture of an island, which zooms in to show a kid in a boat finding a red book and opening it, to find an image of a city, which zooms in to find … the first kid reading the book! The extreme zooming-in is a fun concept, as is the way that the worlds inside the books collide with reality, eventually resulting in a new friendship.
One more wordless book! In this one, a little girl wakes up to find a portal in her bedroom, and she follows her cat (and a cat doppelganger) into the portal, where things get topsy-turvy. Up is down, and then things go sideways, and then she meets some other kids having fun in this portal world. Eventually, she even meets another version of herself, before heading home and back to bed.
This final book in the Shape Trilogy (after Triangle and Square) has Circle, Square, and Triangle playing hide-and-seek. Circle says not to hide behind the waterfall, because it’s dark back there, but Triangle (that scamp!) goes straight for it when Circle starts counting. So she sets off to find him … and encounters a mysterious somebody in the dark, and the two of them run back to the light. It’s frightening for them, but Circle also realizes that maybe the shape back there in the darkness isn’t bad—they’re just unknown. While the story doesn’t have a simple “here’s the message, kids!”, it encourages the reader to think about why we’re scared of the unknown and how things might be different than our initial interpretations.
Okay, this one might be a little bit of a stretch for today’s theme, because the characters in this story are from the forest and don’t leave the forest—but they’re strangers to me. The “little guys” are tiny creatures with acorn caps. They’re small, but they are many, and together they are strong: strong enough to dig, lift, climb, and overcome just about anything—except maybe their own hubris. It’s a cute, silly, cautionary tale about being a little too greedy, and about living in harmony. Vera Brosgol’s artwork is always delightful, and the little guys manage to be very expressive even though you can’t see any facial features other than their large noses.
Have you ever wondered what’s under your feet? This book dives into the world below, from water pipes and cables and the sewer to buried objects found by archaeologists to underground caves … all the way to the earth’s core! The pages are actually a large accordion that unfolds to about eight feet long. The back side of the pages show a less urban journey, with creatures and burrows and fossils instead of manmade artifacts.
Ahhh, nothing like getting away from the old routine and enjoying the simple life: you know, where you can just flip a switch to turn on a light. In this picture book, a bunch of forest animals spend a week camping in—they move into a human house when the family goes off for a camping trip. It’s a funny reversal of our own experiences with camping: the animals are ready to plug in, enjoying the amenities of the indoors, but things (as always) begin to deteriorate. After a week, the great indoors is just a little too much work, and the animals are all ready to get back to the forest.
In the center of the town, there’s a big castle—the last castle, in fact. Nobody ever goes in or out of it, but a lone guard is usually seen in the tower. Everyone has ideas about what’s inside, though, based on the strange sounds they hear—monsters, or giants, or possibly snakes. Ibb, however, wonders what’s inside, and eventually makes her way inside.
This is, as you might guess, a story about being curious and open to new experiences, but I won’t spoil the surprise of what’s actually inside the castle. I enjoyed the illustrations—the oddity of having a castle (with a moat) in the middle of town, and also the way that people imagined what was inside the castle.
This picture book tells the story of Gittel, a young Jewish girl who embarks on a journey to the United States. But when they reach the port to board the boat, Gittel’s mother is turned away by the health inspector, so Gittel must make the journey alone. The story is based on two true stories—one about the author’s own grandmother, and one about a family friend. The book depicts the fear and hope that accompanies immigration: the sadness of leaving behind a home, and the anticipation of a new home. It also speaks to the way that we bring our old traditions to a new world. The illustrations are lovely, and make the story seem almost like an old folktale.
Crossing the Atlantic, as Gittel did in the book above, was no small feat, especially in the time before air travel. The journey by ship was long and perilous, though it became safer, quicker, and more reliable as new technologies were developed, both in how ships were propelled and how they were constructed. David Macaulay—known for his detailed blueprints and illustrations in books like The Way Things Work—examines the history of the steamship, leading up to the SS United States, the most advanced and last great steamship, designed by William Francis Gibbs. But after the technical explanation, it’s also a personal story: Macaulay himself came to America on the SS United States when he was ten, and he relates his own family’s journey across the Atlantic.
These first two volumes of Tales from the Hidden Valley are strange, magical stories with anthropomorphic animals. It’s hard to describe the stories because they’re so weird, but they’re a lot of fun, too. In The Artists, Sara the fox plays her drum and follows a swirl of leaves blown by the wind. In the meantime, Ticky the bird prepares to fly south for the winter—but he’s waiting to say goodbye to his friend Yula (a wolf), who’s running behind because she’s trying to paint a perfect farewell card for Ticky. And then there’s a little onion-headed ballerina creature who shows up, painting everything with specks of bright colors. Like I said, it’s kind of strange, but it’s about changing seasons and art and friendship, old and new.
In Hello, Mister Cold, a weird faceless guy named Maximilian Cold keeps getting kicked out for playing weird songs on his trumpet, and he ends up in the hidden valley. This story is sort of a comedy of errors, as Maxi tries to rescue Yula from the cold, but then gets mistaken by her friends for a monster … until eventually the music brings them all together.
A cicada narrates this story in broken English, describing how it works as a data entry clerk in the human world and is treated terribly for 17 years, before heading up to the roof to say goodbye—where its transformation happens. It’s a very simple story, told with few words, and it’s Tan’s amazing illustrations that really bring it to life and give it weight. The story is also broad enough to make room for multiple interpretations. Is it about immigrant workers? Is it about the drudge of working in a faceless corporation? Whatever it is, it’s certainly about breaking free from the mundane and discovering what’s inside.
This beautiful hardcover book purports to be a reproduction of a collection of journals and notebooks discovered in “a remote part of the Amazon” by the compiler and editor, Teddy Keen. The collection included a letter addressed to two young adventurers as guidance on many skills that are useful for adventuring, from creating shelters to building rafts, dealing with animals, making fire, choosing a good knife, and how to navigate.
Most of the book is a series of how-tos, accompanied by plenty of diagrams and illustrations, but there are also stories of travels in a wide variety of locations: encountering a hyena in Botswana, camping on a beach in Micronesia, climbing to a treetop house in the Papuan rain forest. The illustrations, which appear to be colored pencil or oil pastels, are lovely, and the book covers a huge number of topics pertaining to camping and traveling.
One of the great joys of reading—as evidenced by many of the books in today’s column—is the way that they can transport us to new places, the way that we can travel to faraway lands even without stepping outside. But getting to see the faraway lands we’ve visited through stories is also an exciting experience, and Kreitner’s book lists plenty of real places with literary ties. Some are real locations that were made famous through stories, like Monroeville, Alabama, which served as the inspiration for Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird; the county’s courthouse is a popular destination for fans of the book, because of the famous scene from the story. Some are places where books were written—where the author lived, or worked, or took inspiration. And some places have been changed by the stories themselves: statues of famous characters, a trolley embedded in the wall at King’s Cross Station to mark Platform 9¾.
There’s a particular poignancy to this book today, as I came across the entry on Notre-Dame Cathedral even as I was hearing news reports about the fire. Not all of the places in the book will remain unchanged forever—except perhaps in the stories that take place there. If you like exploring real places related to literature, this book is a good place to start.
I came across this at the bookstore and picked up a copy for myself. It’s a graphic novel about two brothers who leave Ghana for a better life in Europe, and all the difficulties and dangers they encounter on the way. I had been familiar with images of refugees sailing across the Mediterranean Sea to Greece or Italy, piled onto too-small boats. But I hadn’t really considered how harrowing the journey could be before immigrants even reached the coast of Africa. Ebo and his brother Kwame are constantly looking for work to earn enough money for passage: for a bus to Tripoli, for a ride across the Sahara Desert, for the boat. They’re constantly taken advantage of—for instance, the smugglers force them to pay extra for water during the trip through the desert.
But Ebo and Kwame endure all of this for the hope of a better life. Their sister has gone to Europe ahead of them, and they hang onto hope of a brighter future, if they can survive the journey. Although this book is fiction, it’s based on real experiences: as the authors note, “every separate element of it is true.” It’s an eye-opening account of what immigrants face, whether they are in search of the riches of a new home or fleeing the dangers of their old home. I hope stories like these make readers more empathetic to the plight of immigrants. Whatever the solution may be, it’s clear that current circumstances are horrible and need to be addressed somehow.
This is another book that I bought for myself, this time after hearing part of a talk by Mohsin Hamid on the radio. It also has to do with immigrant stories, but this time with a bit of magical realism. Exit West is the story of Saeed and Nadia, two young people who meet and fall in love in a city in the midst of a war—while the city is never named, it seems to be somewhere in the Middle East with a majority Muslim culture. As militants take over more and more of the city, Saeed and Nadia have to adjust to new rules, new restrictions, and new dangers.
The “magical” part of the story comes in the form of doors: regular doorways begin to transform into doors that transport people to faraway places. People from war-torn regions flee through the doors to seek a better life. Agents charge exorbitant amounts to arrange for travel to such doors. Militants use them to smuggle people into the city. Wealthy nations guard the doors as they would their borders—but there are just too many of them.
Saeed and Nadia eventually escape their city through one of these doors, first ending up in Greece, and then England, and eventually America. Even though their method of travel is fantastical, the problems they face are very real: crowded refugee camps, exploitation because of their status, prejudice from nativists who feel they don’t belong. The writing is told in a strange, almost impersonal way: although the story jumps around to depict various people traveling through doors all over the world, Saeed and Nadia are the only two people in the entire book who have names. The sentences are long, with lots of asides, sometimes treating trivialities and emotionally significant moments with the same tone. It abstracts things a little, but it’s somehow still very powerful.
Despite the harsh realities that Saeed and Nadia face on their journeys (not least of them, the ways that their circumstances begin to pull them apart), the book seems ultimately optimistic. It pictures a world in which immigration, although difficult, is not only possible but inevitable. There’s no way to police all of the doors, no way to round up and imprison all of the people pouring through them—so the culture shifts to accommodate the immigrants. I found it enchanting and thought-provoking, even if not what I would call “enjoyable.”
I first mentioned Trish Trash back in 2016, when I’d gotten a copy of the first volume, and lamented how brief it was. Somehow I missed the second volume, but the third volume and the 3-volume collected edition were both published in December, so now you can finally read the whole story!
Here’s the quick scoop: Mars has been colonized, but most people there are indentured servants for Arex—the corporation shipped settlers from Earth when it was melting down, and it’s nearly impossible to pay back your debts (unless you happen to die working on an asteroid). Trish works on her aunt and uncle’s moisture farm, driving the Arex-owned hover truck over the moisture collectors, and dreaming about derby. Hoverderby is a sport much like our old banked-track roller derby, but played with special hoverskates. Trish manages to earn her way onto a team, but not all the players are happy to have a “duster” skating with them.
Meanwhile, Trish encounters a native Martian and rescues her—but the humans on Mars fear these creatures, with their exoskeletons and extra arms. Qiqi repays Trish’s help in ways that may help her both in roller derby and in her debt to Arex… but I won’t spoil too much of that for you.
Apart from futuristic roller derby and alien culture, the Mars of Trish Trash suffers from a lot of the same things we do here on Earth: the way we exploit workers, mistrust those who don’t look like us, and put profit (or winning) above people. It’s an intriguing story that paints a fascinating (if somewhat pessimistic) picture of life on Mars, but it’s also ultimately hopeful. I really enjoyed it, and wish that there were even more. The back of the book includes several articles from a “Wiki MarsRed” site—powered by Arex MarsRed—that tells a bit about the history of hoverderby and the settlement of Mars, essentially from the corporation’s point of view.
If you like roller derby and/or Mars sci-fi, this comic book is definitely worth a read!
This graphic novel is inspired by Norse mythology, but from a very different perspective. Vei is a champion from Jotunheim, a land ruled by giants, and foes to the Midgardians—you know, those people who worship Odin and Thor and all those other Norse gods that we usually hear about. When this book begins, Vei has been exiled from Jotunheim for reasons unknown, and is rescued—begrudgingly—by a ship from Midgard on its way to Jotunheim.
As the story unfolds, we learn about the origins of Meistarileikir, a battle staged periodically between Jotunheim and Asgard to determine who will rule Midgard. The Asgardians have always won—their champions have been unbeatable—but will Vei and the other champions of Jotunheim be able to turn the tide this time?
I was really enthralled by the story, particularly the way that it took the somewhat familiar gods of Asgard and showed them from another angle, as antagonists instead of protagonists. The illustrations are beautiful and strange: Jotunheim giants are massive and blue-skinned, mostly humanoid but with antlers and tails. The story ends with an intriguing hint of things to come, so I’m very curious to see where it goes in future volumes. A note for parents: the book is intended for adults, with a sex scene and a good bit of gore when the fighting starts.
Disclosure: Except where otherwise noted, I received review copies of these books.