Motivated by an ancient legend of a golden snail, Wilbur sets sail for the Ends of the Earth to find—and finally liberate—this creature in Graeme Base’s The Legend of the Golden Snail, just out from Abrams Books for Young Readers. Along the way, the boy helps fantastical creatures in distress, who in return guide him on his perilous quest. Before following Wilbur’s journey, kids first read the legend itself, relayed in a miniature booklet (that itself contains a book-within-the-book) attached to the title page. Base has also created online components tying into his large-format storybook, which has a 50,000-copy first printing. Here’s a look at the genesis of the book, which marks a graphic departure for the author.

Two events in the author’s life helped spark the story. Base found inspiration in his boyhood travels by boat between his family’s native England and Australia, where his father worked at the University of Melbourne. “The journey took five weeks each way, and it was an amazing experience,” he recalls. “That sense of being out on the ocean and seeing every corner of it from the ship was a profound emotional experience for me. I’m not a yachty, and it kind of scared me. My thought of doing a book based on a seafaring adventure definitely comes from that early source.”

A second, more recent inspiration came from a hotel in France where he and his family—Base’s children are now 15, 17, and 20—were staying. “A light fitting coming out of the wall had a spiral motif and a lamp shade, and I said to my kids that it reminded me of a snailing ship,” he says. “They of course rolled their eyes. But I drew a picture of a ship formed from a snail shell, which later became the basis of this story.” In the book, the enchanted snail that Wilbur seeks out assumes the shape of a “golden galleon: a Snailing Ship.”

The pages of Golden Snail have a very different look than the detail-packed pages of his earlier books, which was the author’s intent. “I decided to take my foot off the pedal with all the detail,” he explains. “I’m sure after Animalia and The Eleventh Hour, readers thought that’s what to expect from Graeme Base. With The Sign of the Seahorse, I took a step away from the puzzle-book genre—that was more of an adventure story.”

In his latest work, Base takes yet another step away from the feel of his busiest books. “I decided to take a deep breath, to show this sense of open space, to show horizons. I feel these pictures offer readers a chance to invest their own thoughts and emotions in them. Being an artist, it’s all a journey, and you learn where the subtle patterns lie. I may be a slow learner, but these are pretty precious pictures to me.”

Howard Reeves, editor at large for Abrams Books for Young Readers (who works with editors at Penguin Australia on Base’s books), was immediately drawn to the author’s new vision. “This is a departure for him in that it’s a very traditional storybook,” he observes. “In other books, Graeme’s imagination has taken us under the sea or introduced us to imaginary characters. This is more of a classic story—it’s more about a child instead of a child’s fantasy. There is so much in this book that kids can respond to.”

One graphic trademark of his books that Base retains in Golden Snail is the hidden picture element: here he hides a “snail ‘n’ crossbones”—a riff on skull and crossbones—on each spread. “I initially told myself that I wasn’t going to hide objects in this book, but I couldn’t resist!” he says.

With the help of clues, those hidden objects are somewhat easier to find in the tie-in game that appears on Base’s Web site. That game leads to an augmented reality feature that enables players who have successfully completed the challenge to hold the symbol on the book’s back cover up to a Web cam to make a moveable, 3-D image of the Golden Snail appear on the screen.

To paint the book’s art, Base had already built a clay model of Wilbur’s boat, which was then digitized to create a version of the vessel that springs to 3-D life on the screen. “Rather than just put it up on the Web site, I wanted to tie this augmented reality feature into a game, to make it a challenge and a journey for readers,” says the author.

Base’s bestselling Animalia also has a new high-tech spinoff: iPhone and iPad apps tying into that book recently became available, and the iPad version landed in the top slot for books in the U.S. during its first week on sale. The author, who was involved in creating the app’s content—it contains three games as well as all of the book’s illustrations—says “it was a great opportunity to express the innate interactivity of Animalia. That book was always interactive—before that word was part of our vocabulary.”

Obviously an ardent fan of books, Base appreciates the value of bringing material alive on screen. “Whether one likes it or not, the screen is a profoundly important source of imagery and storytelling for this generation,” he observes. “For me, books remain a stunning place to tell stories, but the screen has a place. With this app venture, I wanted to say to kids who don’t pick up a book as willingly as they download an app, ‘Here’s my vision. Enjoy it on the screen.’ After all, it’s the storytelling and the imagination that are the crucial things.”

The Legend of the Golden Snail by Graeme Base. Abrams, $19.95 (48p) Oct. ISBN 978-0-8109-8965-8