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In The Lights & Types of Ships at Night (McSweeney’s, Nov. 2020), a narrator takes young readers on a tour of a glistening waterfront at night, as lighted ships ease in and out of a bay. Each ship and its lights are glisteningly rendered by illustrator Annie Dills. The text, by Dave Eggers, unfolds to explain the purpose of different boats and ultimately — to meditate on beauty as its own purpose.

Preeminent children’s librarian Betsy Bird says the book is “Soaked in candy-colored lights and childlike hyperbole in service of beauty. Eggers takes the rudimentary idea of a picture book about boats and turns it into a collection of nighttime images that seep off the page into your dreams. Unforgettable.” We asked Annie and Dave to tell us more about the origin of the book.

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AMANDA UHLE: How did the idea for this book come about?

DAVE EGGERS: There’s an old Mississippi-style ferryboat that’s docked on the Embarcadero in San Francisco, and over the years, every time I see it at night I’m struck by the otherworldly beauty of it — the bright white and red lights against the black sky, the reflection on the water, the whole overwhelming sight. I kayak sometimes on San Francisco Bay, and every tugboat and dinghy and barge looks beautiful at night. Against this blank background, the ships and their lights are almost like constellations in the sky. So I thought we’d create a book that brings attention to this for kids who are interested in boats, or just interested in seeing.

AU: Annie, when you first read the text, did you have a pretty clear vision of how the illustrations would take shape?

ANNIE DILLS: When I read the text I knew the ships would need to be larger than life and as bright and bold as possible. I was initially inspired by James Whistler’s nocturne paintings, scientific atlas illustrations, and Japanese woodblock prints. Dave helped guide me as we got closer and closer to what he was envisioning, and the direction definitely became clearer as I went along.

AU: The illustrations are somewhat unusual for a picture book. They’re moody and glistening in a way that sets the book apart. Tell us about the process of how the visual look of the book evolved.

AD: I focused on the lights being the focal points of each illustration and my first goal was to learn how to capture the look and feel of glowing lights reflected on the water. We knew we wanted to use silver and gold as much as possible and everything else coalesced around that. I used icy blue, glow-in-the-dark green, neon red, and caution tape yellow to make sure the lights really popped off the page.

AU: There’s no human depicted in the book, which is an incredible contrast when you consider the narrator’s voice — warm, funny, human in every way. What are you hoping readers will imagine when they pick up this book?

AD: These boats were built by humans but begin to resemble magnificent robotic sea creatures when isolated on the water. It’s interesting that even though people are not prominently featured in the book, their work is still felt at every turn. I hope the book teaches readers about ships and their many functions, but to also view them as beautiful, romantic, and awe-inspiring.

AU: That feeling of awe at seeing boats on the water will resonate for kids who have seen containerships coming into the San Francisco Bay just like it will for kids who watch trawlers move down the Detroit River. On every page, it feels like the book was created with some of the universal things kids are interested in and think about. Yet, alongside the childlike wonder, it’s sophisticated.

AD: There’s a majesty of ships at night that is hard to quantify. I was really interested in capturing the aspects of lights reflected in the water at night that are beautiful to both children and adults. My experience with ships is catching fleeting glimpses of them at night in the San Francisco Bay as my family drove home from the city to the East Bay. This book gives kids the opportunity to really explore what ships at night look like, for as long as they want.

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