Since his debut in 2015, Daniel Miyares has illustrated a steady stream of picture books, from a biography of Rachel Carson (Night Walk to the Sea: A Story About Rachel Carson, Earth’s Protector, 2020) to a romp about a rock that rolls (A Chip Off the Old Block, 2018). Stories that the Kansas-City based artist has written and illustrated himself show similar versatility: Pardon Me! stars a mouthy parrot, while Float, a wordless picture book, looks at coming back from loss. Due out this month, Hope at Sea: An Adventure Story follows the young daughter of a 19th-century ship’s carpenter as she stows away on her father’s clipper ship, and, under his tutelage, learns what life at sea is like. The book is another venture into new territory—for the characters, and for Miyares as well. PW spoke with Miyares about clipper ship technology, drawing with pen and ink, and writing his family’s history.
Were you conscious from the outset that this book would have a different look and feel than your previous books?
In a way I was. In the very deep undercurrents of the story, it remains a hero’s journey. A lot of my stories tend to have that as an engine. Everything else is very different. It’s historical fiction, as it turned out.
What was its genesis?
I started with the idea of resilience after a conversation with my daughter. She was 11—she’s 13 now—and she was unpacking her school day. She had just started a new grade and anxieties were pressing in on her, and I realized that I can’t protect her from these things. The storms are going to come. It’s more my job to encourage her to be resilient, to understand that there are days after the big storms.
And did the story change much from the way you first imagined it?
To begin with, the ship was the narrator. There was a metamorphosis from harvested trees to lumber to ship and then back to lumber. I work with Anne Schwartz [of Anne Schwartz Books at Random House]. She’s such a fantastic collaborator; I’ve been really fortunate to work with her. And she said, “You know, Daniel, I love the idea and the emotion, but will the reader be able to fully connect with a narrator who isn’t human?” And I had to agree. When I retooled it, I wondered, “What if there is a family that is tied to the fortunes of the ship?”
Did the characters come easily?
The idea for the main character was super easy: I’m looking at my daughter, and there she is! But thinking about how this family should be structured—What are their circumstances? What lines up with what?—all that took a lot of reading and research, like the role of the father. It would have been easy to say, “He’s the captain!” But I thought the carpenter had a unique and specific role that played into the heart of the story—the ingenuity, the craftsmanship. So I backed myself into this project of historical fiction, and that was exciting.
What kind of source materials did you find?
Since most of the research took place in 2020, during the pandemic, I couldn’t travel to the places I wanted to. It forced me to dig into places I didn’t expect; firsthand accounts, journals written by sailors in the 1800s about what life was like. I ordered a book of clipper ship plans. The plans were incredibly detailed, down to identifying which part of the tree to cut to make which part of the ship. I learned more about why the clipper was such an innovation. They went from ships that were ornate and built according to tradition to asking, “How do we increase our speed and expand our cargo space?” It was new technology, but purely through design, not new materials. It was still canvas and wood. But the clipper ships didn’t last long! Shortly after the period in which this story takes place, they started integrating steam into sea travel.
How did you balance your vision for Hope’s adventure against the desire to be realistic?
When I’m working on these kinds of projects I want them to be entertaining and educating—that’s where my heart is. I was a huge fan of Mark Twain growing up. Every time I started in on something he had written, I understood that it was an orchestrated tale that showed me what storytelling could be. When you’re telling stories like this, you’re organizing pieces on this timeline and on this map, and you’re letting the reader hit the markers.
The text is very tight and closely edited. Can you tell us about that process?
The copy that’s in the book gets to the details that are required, the emotions, and trims all the fat off. I’ve done wordless books, so I’m familiar with the question, “What are the right details to include?” When Hope is hiding in the lifeboat, there are just the three lines: “My stomach is in knots. Will I be discovered? Will Papa be angry with me?” And the ink lines across her face look a little like knots. Simple things: whether you notice them or not, they add flavor.
Anne and the art director for the book, Nicole de las Heras, who’s fabulous, were looking at my sketches and they said, “Your scratchy line drawing reminds us of scrimshaw engravings. You should take a look at scrimshaw.” So I started researching folk art and scrimshaw pieces and they were amazing! It was a great suggestion, and the right marriage of where I was headed and what the story needed.
Your previous books seem to use more color and form and don’t contain a lot of line drawing, whereas this one is intricately drawn. Is this line-centered work new for you?
It’s funny—I’ve done this book in pen and ink, and another book— Big and Small and In Between by Carter Higgins, which is coming out in April from Chronicle—in graphite. I haven’t really featured drawing in my books up to this point.
When I was five years old, my parents gave me this tackle box that my dad had used for an art appreciation course. It had one little bottle of ink and one steel-tipped pen. They let me draw on computer paper from their Commodore 64 and just scribble with this scratchy pen for hours and hours. These were my very first memories of drawing. I’m left-handed, too, so that’s a problem. [As it moves across the page, the left hand travels over the ink and tends to smudge it.] It taught me to embrace the chaos.
Then in college I had an intaglio press in my basement, and I became a nut for printmaking, especially etching. Drawing this way is just like making etchings. I wanted that impromptu feel. I draw directly in ink onto my finish paper, without laying it out in pencil.
It sounds like you’re giving more weight to those early experiences. What’s driving that decision?
The idea of doing what you’re meant to be doing—even sometimes despite yourself—is really important. There are things that make me as a creator that are important to listen to, and that speak to other people, and I hope that joy will carry over.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on finished artwork for a book with Donna Bray at HarperCollins. It’s called Nell Plants a Tree, and it’s by Anne Wynter, who wrote Everyone in the Red Brick Building. It’s a wonderfully poignant story about a pecan tree planted by Nell, the family matriarch. It meant a lot to me because I grew up surrounded by pecan trees. My grandmother would send us out there, we would have to fill paper sacks with pecans and then crack them all and bag them up to freeze and make pies.
And I’m in the initial phases of a graphic memoir based on my father’s escape from Cuba when he was a child. He was about nine when he and his siblings got out. I wanted to dig into that. I kept asking myself what would make a father—my grandfather—say, “I’m going to endanger my family and my wife and abandon everything that we’ve known for this great unknown.” What would bring someone to that point? This story is very personal, obviously—and it’s harrowing.
My father only shared the story with me after I graduated and moved to Kansas City. It always struck me—why not share that with me earlier? But I think that he didn’t want his kids to be seen as different. He wanted us to assimilate. We didn’t speak Spanish in the house. He wanted us to be as normal as we could, and not sharing his story with us was part of that.
That’s tapping into earlier experiences, too, with the story as well as with the art. What has that been like?
The whole process has taught me a lot about the perspective of immigrants and how the way they’re portrayed gets their lives and their intentions wrong, even now. The situations of immigrant communities are so different, and so nuanced.
Has the book found a home?
It’s a signed deal! Anne Schwartz is going to do it.
Hope at Sea: An Adventure Story by Daniel Miyares. Random/Schwartz, $17.99 Nov. 9 ISBN 978-1-984892-83-6