A ship wrecks off the coast of Maine, carrying fifteen circus animals on their way to Boston. The greedy circus owner forces the ship's captain to save him, abandoning the animals in the water. The fifteen animals, including a snake, lion, elephant and tiger, are forced to swim to safety towards an island. There the villagers are understandably surprised and afraid of the seemingly wild animals. However, they soon learn to care for the animals, and they become part of the community. So when the villainous circus owner tries to claim the animals again, the villagers have to find a way to keep those animals safe and free.
I had reviewed A Camping Spree with Mr. Magee in 2003 for School Library Journal, and really loved it. Many of the hallmarks of that book are on display here. Van Dusen has created characters full of personality in both his illustrations and his verse. You can see every expression on the faces of the captain, worried about the circus animals, and the angry circus owner. The animals have human eyes and expressions, turning them from wild animals into friendly, kind faces.
One of the most entertaining things about the book is the way Van Dusen allows the animals to peek out from the island scenery. Readers can listen to the rhyming text and discover the hiding animals at the same time. Van Dusen's sense of humor peeks out from the pages also, with a monkey popping out of old-fashioned bloomers. There is something to laugh at on every page, and the book is total fun to read aloud.
But the real reason I was drawn to write about this book has to do with another aspect of the illustrations. Van Dusen comments on this in the author blurb on the back jacket: "I've focused on light sources and textures in the artwork for this story." And how! The color and light in these gouache paintings are luminous and stunning. Even the paintings in the middle of the storm that helps cause the wreck are moody and full of that weird stormy light. The light peering over the horizon lightens the sky, creating rich shades of blue and yellow. It truly sparkles on each page of Van Dusen's work. The book is gorgeous and unusually vibrant.
The text doesn't suffer in comparison to the art, either. The text is in verse, but it scans easily, making it easy to read. There are no words that sound jarring in the rhyme scheme, or that have to be said in an unnatural way to rhyme, which can make the book a chore to read. The verses are sprightly and short, too, moving the plot along at a nice speed. Van Dusen has included humor in the text, too. While the setting is old-fashioned, the text is not - there isn't any modern slang, but it is accessible to young readers.
Finally, Van Dusen includes an Author's Note to tell readers about the origins of the story. It was inspired by a true, tragic event - the circus ship (in the 1830's) actually sank and the animals were not saved. I appreciate both that the author made the effort to tell us about his inspiration and also his creativity in recasting the events in a more fun, upbeat way.
There is so much more to talk and write about - the Maine setting, the enraged circus owner/villain... but I'll let you pick it up and discover it for yourselves. Enjoy!!
Van Dusen, Chris. The Circus Ship. Candlewick Press, 2009. from Lewis and Clark Library (up for the Treasure State Award)