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  • Ratha Tep

Interview with Chris Van Dusen, THE CIRCUS SHIP

When a circus ship runs aground off the coast of Maine, the poor animals are left on their own to swim the chilly waters. Staggering onto a nearby island, they soon win over the wary townspeople with their kind, courageous ways. But what happens when the greedy circus owner returns to claim the animals?


Written and illustrated by Chris Van Dusen

Publisher: Candlewick (September 22, 2009)

I love that The Circus Ship is based on a historical event. You also wonderfully illustrated President Taft is Stuck in the Bath, written by Mac Barnett. Are there any other picture books you love that are based (however loosely) on historical events? CVD:"I love picture books based on true historical events, especially strange and unusual events, but they are few and far between. That’s why I was so excited when I read about The Royal Tar, the steamship that caught fire off the coast of Maine on which I based The Circus Ship. A couple books that come to mind that are based on actual events are Letting the Swift River Go by Jane Yolen and illustrated by Barbara Cooney, and Out of the Woods by Rebecca Bond."

Riel Nason called out your incredible double-page spread with the animals hiding around the town. Can you tell me more about that spread? "It’s funny, because I almost didn’t include that spread in the book. I thought what if kids find the animals the first time and then on the second or third or fifth or 30th time they read it, that illustration just becomes boring. I didn’t foresee that it would be exactly the opposite. It’s the spread that’s most mentioned in that book. In a way, I think it’s almost an empowering image for young children. Even though they may have found the animals a number of times, they still feel like they have observation skills that Mr. Paine doesn’t, and find joy in one-upping the villain."

You have such a distinctive illustration style. Are there any other illustrators you admire for their distinctive style? "There are so many illustrators whose work I admire (from Adam Rex and Christian Robinson to Robert McCloskey and P.D. Eastman) that it’s hard to pick just one. I would undoubtedly leave someone I love out, and I would hate to do that. So I’ll mention an illustrator that maybe people might not be as familiar with - Mark Buehner. He often illustrates stories by his wife, Caralyn, and people may know their Snowmen books (Snowmen at Night, Snowmen at Work). But their book, Fanny's Dream, is probably my favorite. It’s a wonderful story and the illustrations are gorgeous. Mark also illustrated Harvey Potter's Balloon Farm, written by Jerdine Nolen, which is also amazing."

What do you think the best picture books do? "I think the best picture books take you to a place you’ve never been and/or show you something you’ve never seen. Probably the best example of this is the classic Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. A more current example is The Antlered Ship by Dashka Slater, illustrated by the Fan Brothers. I also think the best picture books make you want to read them over and over. One of the best compliments I can receive is when a parent tells me that after they had finished reading one of my books to their child, the child responds, 'Again!'"

What are some of your favorite classic picture books? "The classic picture books are classic for a reason - they’re so good. Some classics I still go back to are One Morning in Maine by Robert McCloskey, The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton, Horton Hears a Who! by Dr. Seuss, and Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig. But there are so many more. Some more recent books that I think (or hope) will become classics are Terrific by Jon Agee, Swamp Angel by Anne Isaacs, illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky, Flotsam by David Wiesner, Small in the City by Sydney Smith, Hello Lighthouse by Sophie Blackall, School's First Day of School by Adam Rex, illustrated by Christian Robinson, Extra Yarn by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Jon Klassen... I could go on and on and on…."

What was your favorite picture book as a child? "My favorite picture book as a child was probably Burt Dow, Deep-Water Man by Robert McCloskey. Not so much for the writing, but definitely for the illustrations, which are stunning! That book definitely takes you someplace you’ve never been before!"

Do you remember what you loved reading to your kids? "One book I remember that I loved reading aloud to my sons is Harvey Potter's Balloon Farm, which I mentioned before. It’s written in an easy conversational style and I loved adding a Southern accent when I read it. Go, Dog. Go! by P.D. Eastman and Trash Trucks! by Daniel Kirk were favorites, too. And my wife loved to read In the Small, Small Pond by Denise Fleming and Stellaluna by Janell Cannon."

What would be on your list of 100 best picture books of all time? "I think all the books I mentioned above would make my top 100 picture books of all time. And I think if I had to name my number one favorite picture book of all time, I’d go back to a classic, Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey. It just might be the perfect picture book."


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