Essential Maps for the Lost: Essay « Deb Caletti
Deb Caletti
Deb Caletti

Essential Maps for the Lost: Essay

Map Love

A map.

Mads thinks about maps that night, as she sits in her bed, knees up, book propped on top.  Yellowed maps with dark ink letters, old maps, wrong maps, the maps before anyone even really knew where we were, when they thought the poles were seas they could sail to, or the earth was a land one might drop off of.  Wouldn’t it be terrifying, Mads thinks, to not even know what was beyond where you stood, or what was over that mountain range?   Except, little nomad, we do it every day.

The essential maps for the lost would say, Out, this way.  They’d say, Don’t turn back, go only forward.  They’d say, Courage, traveler.

It’s dark, and she reads by the small lamp near the bed.  Claudia has just retrieved her violin case from the carved marble sarcophagi.  Again.  She retrieves it again, the third time for Mads, the zillionth time or more for Claudia.  Who could even guess how many times, since E. L. Konigsberg first typed those words.

Mads opens to the middle of the book, her own purchased copy, since Harrison snitched the one from the library.  She wonders how many kids are reading it right along with her – how many shiny bookmarks or bent down pages are between its covers, how many hungry eyes pause on the thrilling word sarcophagi.  Mads and Anna Youngwolf Floyd and millions of others might be entirely different people, but they all hid in that museum together.

Maps for the lost would have corridors like this, and rooms leading to rooms.  They would spread large, because life has those places where old, old stuff is tucked away, and where arms and armor are collected after battle.  Routes would wind around buried things and unearthed objects charred and damaged by war and floods and hard history.  There would be twists and turns to exits.  Dead ends.  In the terrain of those maps, tragedy would be everywhere you looked, but so, too, would be the huge halls of treasure to be discovered.



I’ve always been drawn to maps.  When I was a child, one of my favorites was set inside the center of The Pirate’s of the Caribbean, a souvenir book that we’d gotten on our trip to Disneyland.  The map featured the watery pathway of the ride, with a big skull and crossbones splashed at its center.  I’d trace my finger along the route, replaying my thrilling time there: the creepy, blue-tinged lagoon where we first got in; the sight of the first skeleton in the bed surrounded by gold; and the worst, most terrifying moment of all, when the ride got stuck and our boat was frozen under a barrel of dynamite by the pirate ship.  I was convinced it was all over then – I was truly scared, and exhilarated, too.  But more than anything I was immersed in the story, and the map allowed me to become immersed again.

Pirate's Life
A pirate’s life for me…

And then came maps in books:  Winnie the Pooh, and The Wizard of Oz, which, in our edition, came with a pop-up Emerald City castle and a pair of green-tinted glasses to make the tale even more psychedelic.  There was the map in The Phantom Tollbooth, too, with the Sea of Knowledge (yes, please), the Mountains of Ignorance (no, thank you), the oh-so-intriguing “Doldrums” (until you grow up and learn what they are), and the Foothills of Confusion (which you grow up and spend some time in).

The Phantom Tollbooth
The Phantom Tollbooth. Add love, a few tacos, car problems, some birthday cakes, and the occasional vacation,
and this looks pretty much like life.

There were the maps in my most favorite books of all: The Chronicles of Narnia.  The scrolls and fonts on these maps declared ADVENTURE, and each came with an elaborate compass rose.  Can we just pause for a moment and take in that beautiful and beguiling phrase, compass rose?  Sigh…  Those Narnia maps called out to the secret swashbuckler I had inside, the one who wanted to board a ship and ride the back of a lion and follow a white stag in the snow, with my dagger and my ivory horn at my hip.  Most favorite was the map inside The Dawn Treader, as I was clearly partial to maps with ships.  On it, you could find Cair Paravel, which sounded as delicious as a whipped dessert, and The Great Eastern Ocean, which needed a conquering and a crossing in my imagination.  At the center of that map is a tiny voyaging sailboat, too, and the words About here they joined the ship.  Seeing it now I feel the same eager urge to go, the same delight, and the same strange, welcome relief of disappearing into that other world.

The Dawn Treader
The Dawn Treader. Just let me grab my life jacket and my ivory horn…

And then there was THAT map, the one that plays such an important role in my newest novel, Essential Maps for the Lost, the map in the center of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.  Like Billy Youngwolf Floyd, I hid inside that map which hid inside that book.  As a young reader, I lost myself in all the hallways and rooms, Arms and Armor, European Paintings, Dutch and Flemish 17th Century.  Like Mads, I could almost hear the tap of my own heels on the floor.  The American Wing.  Art of India.   I felt the cool hush of history, the secret tales of jeweled swords and necklaces in the shape of tigers and oil paint so real that you’re sure a king’s eyes follow you.

Like Mads and Billy, I was filled with the longing to be there, in that museum.  And here is the beauty of maps in books: a map can make you want things, and a book can open a door, and a map plus a book, a map within a book, is a double prize – a hiding place within a hiding place, a door within a door.  Books offer the magic power of escape and the magic power of understanding, and so do maps.  Together, you have two ways to explore new lands that might help you understand the baffling one you’re actually in, and two ways to escape from it for a while.   With a book and a map, you can discover a clearer path… or a different road altogether.

Museum Map
Museum Map, from my own yellowed childhood copy of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.