The Wreck of the Zephyr, by Chris Van Allsburg

I grew up in a sailing family in Northern Michigan. My father had a beautiful wooden folkboat that he loved and he sailed it out into Lake Michigan every day he could. Sailing, and in particular, caring for (and repairing) that sailboat, was a big part of our lives. For whatever reason though, this book, The Wreck of the Zephyr, never made it into our own library.

But I remember it.

Perhaps a friend had a copy, or perhaps it was read to us at school. The story and most especially the illustrations are so striking, so memorable. When I saw it at our used bookstore, 30 years after it was published, I immediately bought it for my wide-eyed children, who can not get enough of the breathtaking illustrations.

Fantastic pictures notwithstanding, though, this is storytelling at its finest. The narrator is out walking when he comes upon the wreck of a small sailboat, oddly enough at the top of some cliffs. There is an old man sitting alongside the ruins of the boat and he asks how it could have possibly gotten up there.

“Waves carried it up during a storm.”

“Really?” I said. “It doesn’t seem the waves could ever get that high.”

The old man smiled. “Well, there is another story.”

And from there, he begins to tell the most fantastical tale of a young boy, a fine sailor, who gets caught in a storm in his boat, the Zephyr, and finds himself in a mystical place where boats sail high above the water, gliding through the air and clouds.

The boy is astonished, of course, and desperately wants to learn to sail the Zephyr above the water. He begs and pleads with a local sailor to teach him how, until finally the sailor relents, but only upon the condition that the boy promises to leave the next morning. The boy agrees and the sailor rigs up the Zephyr with a new set of sails and they spend the day sailing back and forth across the sky. But when the boy takes the tiller, he’s unable to lift the boat from the water. The sailor shakes his head, anchors the Zephyr, and brings him to his home for the night.

The boy, however, considers himself a great sailor, possibly the greatest, and this irks him. He sneaks out that night and takes the Zephyr out once again until finally, he’s able to make it rise from the water. He’s pleased and heads toward his home, pushing himself to fly ever higher, higher than the sailor, higher than anyone he’s sure. His pride steers the Zephyr through his town’s center, where he hopes to be seen by everyone and surely admired. And of course, that’s when the wind shifts and everything goes wrong, eventually depositing the boat on the cliff where the narrator finds it years and years later.

I’m trying in this blog to offer recommendations of a mix of new books and old, and coming across this one again really stole my breath. The magical combination of moonlight and midnight in Chris Van Allsburg’s pictures is stunning. Van Allsburg, by the way, has received two Caldecott Medals for Jumanji and The Polar Express. The Wreck of the Zephyr, though, would be a treasure on your child’s shelf if it isn’t already.

Do you remember this one? Have you come across any books lately from your childhood that you just had to introduce to your children?

7 thoughts on “The Wreck of the Zephyr, by Chris Van Allsburg

  1. This was my favorite book as a child. I still remember the wharf dreamworld and the soft illustrations. I think I will read it again, thanks for this post. And anyone who has not read their child this book, well … you must!


  2. What an amazing story with such beautiful fanciful pictures. I cannot believe I missed this one. I’m so happy you picked it up…. bo


  3. Pingback: The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, by William Joyce | Amélie's Bookshelf

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