I Went Sailing with Chris Van Dusen

May 26, 2014 § 1 Comment

"The Circus Ship" by Chris Van DusenChris Van Dusen is a Living Legend in our house. He might be the only author-illustrator whom my husband gets as gushy about as I do. I could go on and on about how If I Built a Car and If I Built a House are the two books most likely to be found next to my son’s bed. I could tell you about how King Hugo’s Huge Ego is so vastly intriguing to my three year old that she demands to read it again and again, as if the Secret of Life is buried within (if only she could make complete sense of it). Or, I could hail Randy Riley’s Really Big Hit as the first picture book to make baseball, Outerspace, and math seem like the coolest trio ever. But I won’t. I’m here to tell you about one of the Best Picture Books Ever. As many of you have already guessed, I am talking about The Circus Ship.

Last weekend, my family got to ride on The Circus Ship. Perhaps it’s a stretch to compare a Potomac River Tour Boat filled with kids, parents, and balloon animals, to a wooden steamboat that capsizes off the coast of Maine, upending 15 circus animals and a villainous ringmaster. But when you have the chance to sail with Chris Van Dusen, you buy tickets first and worry about potential drownings later. So, on a breezy, sun-filled day, thanks to Hooray for Books, our local independent bookstore here in Alexandria, I spent three hours at sea with the creator of this ingenuous picture book. Published in 2009, The Circus Ship is one of those rare books with unanimous appeal. I don’t know of a single child who doesn’t—or wouldn’t—love it. That’s not unlike how I feel about Chris Van Dusen himself (now that we are intimately acquainted). Chris is as lovely as the books that he writes and illustrates. He is contagiously passionate about his work. When he reads his books (which he has memorized perfectly), every person in the audience, regardless of age, is transfixed."The Circus Ship" by Chris Van Dusen

As I heard him read The Circus Ship, I considered its plentiful gifts. If there was ever a book that made the case for what picture books can do—how they can transport and engage on multiple levels at the same time—this is it. We have:

  1. The Rhyme. While often hailed for his illustrative talents, Chris Van Dusen is unparalleled among today’s children’s authors in his mastery of verse, meter, and rhyme. He is every bit as good as the Greats, like Dr. Seuss and Bill Peet. In short, he makes children fall in love with language.
  2. The Performance Factor. With such slick, succinct rhyme that rolls off the tongue, every reading is performance worthy—no matter who is at the helm. Parents: your kids have never hung on your every word like this.
  3. The Pictures. Um, they are A-MA-ZING. As in all Chris’ books, the vibrant, unique color schemes jump off the page; the details invite repeated study but never at the expense of the overall compositions; and the distortions of scale bring drama and humor at every turn. This is accomplished by a very labor-intensive paint called gouache (rhymes with “squash”), whereby every spread takes multiple weeks to render. The memorable “camouflage” scene towards the end of The Circus Ship took five whole weeks to paint.
  4. The Aforementioned “Camouflage” Page. You’ll never find a child that isn’t up for a game of “I Spy,” but you’ll find plenty of parents ready to cringe at the thought of “reading” one of these typical seek-and-find books, whose cluttered pages trump real plot. Enter The Circus Ship, a storybook rich on plot, but with a double-page spread towards the end that reveals the 15 animals hiding from their greedy circus master. It doesn’t matter how many times the kids and I have read this book: we cannot stop until we have found every single animal.
  5. The Animals. Everyone loves the Underdog. But we are outright endeared to one who possesses the courage, stamina, wit, cleverness, and heart to make a better life for himself. Times that by 15.
  6. The Villain. The question my son most wanted to ask Chris was, “How did you come up with the idea for Mr. Paine?” I think what he really wanted to know was, can such a larger-than-life character exist in real life? Mr. Paine is indisputably heartless—he abandons his animals to drown without a moment’s hesitation—but his passionate self-perseverance makes for great theater. When, at the end, he fails to reclaim his profitable circus menagerie, his red-hot cheeks, clenched fists, and steam coming out of his head create an unforgettable image. We almost—almost—feel sorry for him.
  7. The Story Behind the Story. The Author’s Note at the end has become almost as enticing to my kids as the story itself, for it reveals the real-life inspiration behind the book: the 1836 wreck of a side-wheel steamer, carrying 103 passengers and a fleet of circus animals, off the coast of Maine. Of course, there’s no proof that the animals survived, or lived out the remainder of their lives in peace on a remote island (as in The Circus Ship).  And yet, Maine’s history is ripe with rumors and stories of strange wildlife sightings in the years that followed. “So.” JP likes to remind me, “it could have happened.” I get the sense that Chris Van Dusen thinks so, too.

    Courtesy of my husband's photography skills, here's a shot of me stalking Chris Van Dusen. Actually, he's schooling me on the correct pronunciation of gouache. But he is, of course, very nice about it. :)

    Courtesy of my husband’s photography skills, here’s a shot of me stalking Chris Van Dusen aboard The Circus Ship. Actually, we are reminiscing about the time I inaccurately referred to his art two years ago on this blog as computer generated and he very nicely wrote to school me on gouache illustration. 🙂

My Complete List of Favorites Written and/or Illustrated by Chris Van Dusen:
If I Built a Car, by Chris Van Dusen
If I Built a House, by Chris Van Dusen
Randy Riley’s Really Big Hit, by Chris Van Dusen
King Hugo’s Huge Ego, by Chris Van Dusen
The Mercy Watson early-reader series, by Kate DiCamillo, illustrated by Chris Van Dusen (NEWS FLASH: a spin-off series launches this fall for a slightly older reader!)
President Taft Is Stuck in the Bath, by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Chris Van Dusen (published earlier this year; and, while I admittedly miss the rhyme of Chris’s other books, his comical depiction of bare buttocks elicits more uproarious belly laughs from my children than any book in recent history)

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