Maine’s favorite children’s author/illustrator looks back on a career with books

The big, little world of Chris Van Dusen

Posted:  Wednesday, March 6, 2019 - 11:00am
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CAMDEN – Author and illustrator Chris Van Dusen calls Camden his home, and in December, he spoke about his life, which has been dedicated to art and telling stories, especially with his ever-popular children’s books.

He visited the Quarry Hill retirement community, and talked candidly about his evolution from being a fledgling artist to creating and publishing books, finding the opportunities and inspiration.

“I was born in Portland, in 1960,” he began. “We lived by Sebago Lake in a town called Raymond, until I was five and then my dad got a job in Massachusetts.”

They moved to Harvard and he liked to joke that he went to school at Harvard.

“But it wasn’t the college,” he said. “I went to kindergarten, elementary, middle school and high school in the Town of Harvard.”

When he graduated from high school he decided to study art and enrolled in UMass Dartmouth, by Cape Cod, and studied fine arts.

“I also took a lot of illustration courses there, too,” he said. “Even though we didn’t do majors and minors at the school, I considered that I majored in painting and minored in illustrating.”

Van Dusen said he considered teaching painting on a college level.

“That didn’t work out because I learned you had to have a master’s degree to be a professor,” he said. “I half-heartily applied to one graduate school figuring that if I got in, that’s the direction I would go. But, I didn’t get in and when I graduated in 1982 I started working for a magazine.”

That was in Lowell, Massachusetts.

“The magazine was always struggling and I was one of the art directors,” he said. “The only reason I mention it is because while I was there I started doing illustrations for the magazine. I did illustrations for the columns, and I also started doing a feature for the magazine, which was usually on a double-page spread. It was a cartoon feature with lots of little jokes hidden throughout.”

The magazines editor called the feature “Cruisin’ with Van Dusen.”

But it was about that time he wanted to get back to Maine and be around his family.

“I found out there was a greeting card company on Route 90 in Rockport,” he said. “A woman who worked there, with whom I had gone to high school, contacted me to see if I wanted to do a few greeting cards for them. I met with them and apparently things worked out because they hired me to be one of the art directors.”

Van Dusen said he moved back to Camden in 1985 and in 1988 that company was bought by a company in New Jersey.

“We could either keep our job and move to New Jersey, which was not an option, or we could collect unemployment and go out on our own, which is what I decided to do.”

Van Dusen said he struggled and took any job he could get.

“By that time I had met my then-girlfriend and my wife-now, Lori,” he said. “She was working and bringing in the money and I was a struggling freelance illustrator. One of the first jobs I had was with Cedar Works, which called me up and wanted me to illustrate swing set instructions.”

He lugged big pieces of cedar up to his studio on the second floor of their house, trying to figure out how they went together.

“Several years later, when we had kids, we bought a Cedar Works set and I opened it up, pulled out the instructions, and there were my illustrations.”

Then he did his first illustration for Down East magazine.

“It got to a point where I was doing two or three illustrations in each issue, so it was really starting to come together,” he said.

Att that point, he decided to promote himself nationally.

“I bought myself a page in a printed directory,” he said. “It was a big book and I’m not sure they’re around anymore because everything is on the internet, but on this page would be a few samples of your illustrations and then directories would get sent free of charge to the art directors all over the country. Magazines, ad agencies, newspapers, all the art directors would see your work and hopefully contact you to do some work for them.”

It worked out well for him because suddenly he was getting calls to do jobs for McDonalds and the New York Times, and then it was going well... really, really well.

But out of all the illustrations he was creating, the ones he preferred to do most were for kids.

“Back then, there were a lot of children's magazines and I was in all most all of them,” he said. “I love doing illustrations because they could be fun, brightly colored and cartoony, so that’s what I preferred to do.”

At the same time that he was doing illustrations, he noticed that his fellow illustrators were writing their own books.

“That was something I’ve always wanted to do,” he said. “Around 1990, I was working on a magazine job and an image popped into my head of a man in a motorboat, stuck in the top of a tree. I got a scrap of paper and I scratched this little man in a boat. Then, I set it aside and I went back to work.”

Van Dusen said he thought more and more about the image and eventually wrote a story.

“I worked on that story for nine years,” he said. “In my spare time, that became my very first book, Down to the Sea with Mr. McGee.”

He continued: “I sent it off to three different publishers. I decided if I was going to do it, I was going to start at the top, so I sent it off to Viking, Harper Collins and Hyperion Publishing and I easily got rejected by all three. I was still doing illustrations for other magazines, but I really wanted to get this book published.”

At the time, Thomaston Books, a local bookstore, had scheduled children’s author and  illustrator David McFail for a signing.

“My son Ethan was 6 or 7 at the time,” he said. “So I said, ‘Ethan, let’s go get you a book.’ I don’t think he really wanted to go, but he was my decoy, so I made him tag along. Lucky for me, but unlucky for Mr. McFail, there weren’t many people at the signing, so I got a chance to ask him some questions.”

Van Dusen wanted to know if he needed an agent to get published.

“He told me it does help to have an agent,” he said. “An agent will get the book under the nose of a real editor. Otherwise, if you just send a story into a publisher it get put into what is called a slush pile. And then he said something that really changed my life. He said, ‘why don’t you send it to my agent.’”

Van Dusen sent her the story and she called him and said, ‘Let’s do this.’

“She helped me to fine-tune the manuscript, and we sent it off to five or six different publishers. It was picked up by Chronicle and they published the book. That was in 2000. It was my first book. I went around to schools and libraries to talk about the book and a lot of kids asked me if I would write another book about this character, Mr. Magee. My second book became, “A Camping Spree with Mr. Magee.”

Van Dusen said he wanted to write about camping but couldn’t figure out a title.

“I wanted the title to rhyme because the words in the story rhymed,” he said. “I couldn’t figure out what rhymes with camping. I ask my dad and he said how about a camping spree with Mr. Magee. I said that’s perfect, so actually it was my dad that wrote the title for this book.”

Van Dusen said two years later, in 2005, he had two more books published.

“They were not Mr. McGee books,” he said. “They next book was titled, If I Built a Car, and this one was published by Dutton in New York. This is a story about a boy named Jack and he uses his imagination to dream up this fantastic car. If you read it you don’t really know if he builds the car or not, but in the end you realize he just uses his imagination. I wrote it to get kids to think creatively.”

Van Dusen said the second book he did in 2005 was one he illustrated for another author and those were called the Mercy Watson books.

“These are chapter books for kids who are just learning to read,” he said. “The first book in the series was called, Mercy Watson to the Rescue. They’re called Mercy Watson books because Mercy Watson is the name of the pig that is the main character. They were written by Katie DiCamillo. She is the author and I just did the illustrations. There are six books in the series.”

Van Dusen said after the Mercy Watson series he went back to writing his own books and published what he believes is his most popular book called, The Circus Ship, which was published in 2009.

“This is loosely based on a true story,” he said. “I don’t know if anyone has ever heard of the real story about a boat called the Royal Tar. It sank off of Vinalhaven and it was carrying a circus. In 1836 a circus was not like we think of it today with clowns and acrobats, it was more of just a collection of animals, a menagerie that they would bring around and put on display in a town.”

According to Wikipedia, the Royal Tar sank as the result of a fire onboard. The ship was carrying 90 passengers and an assortment of animals. Ten people were lost in the sinking and only two horses survived.

Off note to all treasure hunters, a safe carrying gold and silver coin went down with the ship and has never been located or recovered.

“The real story of the Tar is that it was sailing from St. John, New Brunswick, to Portland,” Van Dusen said. “It got caught in a really bad storm off Vinalhaven. It was a huge disaster and a huge story at the time. No one ever heard of an elephant swimming around in Penobscot Bay in October. It was just crazy and it made a lot of papers around the country.”

Van Dusen said he decided to do something a little different and didn’t tell the real story.

“I approached like, what if the animals survived?” he said. “What if the animals swim to an island? And that’s what I really based the story on. Of the books I’ve illustrated, it’s probably my most popular.”

Van Dusen said after The Circus Ship, he brought back his first character, Mr. McGee for a winter time book called, Learning To Ski With Mr. McGee.

“A lot of people wanted to see Mr. McGee come back,” he said. “A friend suggested a winter time scene just to make things a little different. That was followed by a fairy tale I wrote in 2011 and its called King Hugo’s Huge Ego. Of all the books I’ve written that one is probably my favorite title and I can say that because I didn’t come up with it.”

Lori came up with the title because she hated his original title. Van Dusen said his original title was The Cocky Little King and his wife objected to it so he told her to come up with the title.

“She asked what the king’s name was,” he said. “And I told her Hugo and just like that she came up with the title and I said, yes. It’s a story about a very boastful king who learns his lesson when he gets a spell cast on him and his head grows. A lot of kids liked that sort of comic aspect of the book.”

Van Dusen said he followed that book in 2012 with a book called Randy Riley’s Really Big Hit.

“It’s about baseball, giant robots and things from outer space,” he said. “It’s actually one of my favorite books and I like it because it’s about robots. In my studio I have all these toy robots and I always wanted to write a book about a robot, but I could never figure out a unique angle for a clever story.”

One day, he was working in his studio with a Red Sox game underway on the radio. He thought, why not combine baseball and giant robots. That’s how the book evolved.

In 2012, he brought back his character Jack, but instead of building a car, he dreamt of building a fantastic house. It is titled If I Built a House.

“In the car book he shows his dad the car, but in this book he shows his mom,” he said. “ They go from room to room to room and they just get crazier and crazier. For instance one room is a giant fish tank and you can put on an air mask and swim around. One room is a giant racetrack. A lot of kids really like these if I built books because it sparks their imagination and creativity.”

That was the last book he wrote for a while and he started illustrating books for other authors. One of which was about a president.

“It was written by a friend of mine, his name was Mac Barnett,” he said. “The book was called, President Taft is Stuck in the Bath. You’ve probably all heard the story about President Taft getting stuck in the bath and nobody really knows if it’s true or not, but he’s kind of known for getting stuck in the bath and I’m sure for poor President Taft, this book doesn’t help.”

William Howard Taft was the 27th president of the United States. Among his many accomplishments he started the tradition of throwing out the first ball at a baseball game.

At 340 pounds he was the largest president and it was known that he had a hard time dealing with the White House bath tub until he had a special one installed.

“It’s a funny story about all the cabinet members who come into the bathroom and try to help him get unstuck,” said Van Dusen. “When I illustrated this book, I thought wouldn’t it be kind of fun to illustrate the actual cabinet members as best I can.”

Van Dusen said this is where Google images came in really handy.

“Before the computer,” he said,” if I was trying to find to find out what Taft’s secretary of agriculture looked like, there would just be no way. I would never be able to find it, but just with a couple of clicks all these pictures of different cabinet members were there, so I based the characters in the book on the real people.”

Van Dusen said the book was disliked by many. Van Dusen said some schools banned it and many librarians wouldn’t put it out.

“They said it features more adult naked flesh then you find in most children’s picture books. Which we loved, but he’s all covered. There’s a lot of bubble coverage in certain areas, but still, a lot of people criticized both me and the author. It was never our intention to offend, but you either love this book or you hated it. There was kind of no in between.”

Van Dusen said he followed the Taft book with a new series by Kate DiCamillo that he is continuing to work with. DiCamillo is the same author who wrote the Mercy Watson books.

“These are chapter books for slightly older kids,” he said. “She’s taken some of the minor characters from her first series and written a story around that character. The first one was, Leroy Ninker Saddles Up. Leroy Ninker was featured in Mercy Watson Fights Crime, from the original series. There are four books so far from this series that are out. I’ve sent in sketches for a fifth book and I have two more to go.”

Van Dusen said last year he had a book published that he illustrated for another author, Lisa Wheeler.

“I like her writing,” he said. “She writes well in rhyme. We paired up and we did these books about monsters. The one that came out last year was, Even Monsters Need To Sleep. It was a two book deal and the second one will be coming out this spring and it’s called, Even Monsters Go To School.”

Van Dusen said the first book is a going to bed time book and it features the different monster and the different places they fall asleep.

“It was a lot of fun because the writing is pretty minimal,” he said. “It gave me the liberty to create these different places where monsters go to sleep. For instance, it shows where Big Foot goes to sleep, so I was thinking where does Big Foot go to sleep? I was sort of picturing him in the top of a big pine tree sort of sprawled out in the branches. He’s got a jar hanging from the branches full of fireflies that’s his nightlight and he’s in his pajamas. There are a lot of monsters in this book.”

Van Dusen said that brings him up to his most recent where he wrote and illustrated his own book, Hattie and Hudson.

“I’m really fond of this book,” he said. “Its different form my previous books in two main ways.”

It is the first book he’s ever written that does not rhyme. And, it is the first time he’s featured a girl. Her name is Hattie, and she is the main character.

“I’ve got a lot of boys in my line up,” he said. “It was time to feature a girl. She’s brave, she’s independent, she loves to go out and explore in her canoe. It also has a really strong message in this book.”

That message is acceptance and not judging by appearance. The book was released last year.

Van Dusen said sometimes you have a year where you might have three books come out and sometimes you have a year where no books come out, “so this is a year I have no books come out, but next year I’ll have three books come out.”

He added: “It just sort of staggers that way. The books I have coming out next year are, Even Monsters Go To School, and I’ve also illustrated another book for Kat Dicamillo that features the character Mercy Watson as a piglet. Its kind of a prequel book about how she came to live with Mr. and Mrs. Watson. It’s done in a picture book format, which is a larger format and was fun to illustrate Mercy as a little piglet.”

Van Dusen said his publisher is insisting his next book will come out next fall and, “it’s another if I built book, like you saw with the car and the house only this time Jack builds a school.”

“I’m working on the illustrations right now,” he said. “It’s this really crazy school with all sorts of things like the students have hover desks, the gym features this oval pool where you can race submarine bicycles and it’s really over the top.”

Van Dusen said the illustrations are complex and complicated.

“It usually takes about a year for a book to get published,” he said. “I should have turned in the art by now, but I still have a long way to go and they’re going to push it out by next fall, so we’ll see how I do. I hope I can pull it off.”

 

At his December talk, the audience weighed in with questions

Audience question: “What are the age groups for the books?”

Van Dusen: “Publishers usually say that picture books, the larger format books, four to eight years old are what publishers usually say. For the chapter books, like the early Mercy Watson books are six to eight and those are for kids just learning to read. For the older series, that’s more for kids eight to ten.”

 

Audience question: “How does increased pressure form the publisher affect you?”

Van Dusen:  “It’s always a deadline. It was a deadline, too, when I was doing freelance illustrations, but for that I would get a call on Tuesday and would have to deliver the art by Thursday. This time I sign up for a book and they say I need it in six months and I’m still crunching. It takes about two to three weeks to paint one illustration. I don’t know if it because, well, I am getting older, but I feel like I’m slowing down. I don’t paint as fast as I used to and it does take six months to do a book.

“It would be ideal if I could write and illustrate one of my books a year,” he said. “I have books under contract now that I won’t start for two years. I need to clone myself.”

 

Audience question: I was wondering about your painting process. Is it watercolor or something else? And do you use a computer at all?”

Van Dusen: “I don’t use a computer at all. Let me show you this. This is one of the original illustrations from The Circus Ship. It’s under plastic because the paint I use is called gouache. It’s an opaque, water based paint.”

Gouache, (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gouache ), is one type of water based media with uses dating back 600 years. It consists of natural pigment, water and a binding agent. It is used most consistently by commercial artists, illustrations, comics and other design work.

Van Dusen said he keeps the painting wrapped in plastic because if water got on it, the paint would be ruined.

“If you look at it, you’ll se there is some really fine details,” he said. “I use some really small paint brushes. When you look at the detail you can see why it takes two to three weeks to do an illustration.”

 

Audience question: “Have you ever turned down a manuscript?”

Van Dusen:  “That’s a really good question. Actually, I’ve turned down a few because I don’t have the time with my schedule right then, or the story just doesn’t excite me that much. I have to really, really love a story to put my heart into it.”

Van Dusen said right after his first book came out he got an offer from his publisher.

“It was about a kid who was going into the bathtub,” he said. “And he would keep bringing toys into the bathtub. He would keep bringing toys into the bath with him. It was a cute story and it was about counting. And it turned out there waqs no room for him because he had all these toys in the bathtub.”

Van Dusen said he kind of wanted to illustrate it, but he wasn’t completely in love with the story.

“I called a friend of mine who was also an author, illustrator,” he said. “I asked her what I should do in this situation. She bluntly asked, ‘do you want the story?’ I said, ‘I don’t know if I want the story,’ and she said ‘then don’t do it.’ I asked her how she could say that and she said because it will show in your illustrations. Turns out it was really wise advice, so I have turned down several stories.”

 

Audience question: “Do you ever sell originals or prints from your illustrations?”

Van Dusen: “On my website, which is just http://www.chrisvandusen.com/ , I do sell prints of my work. They are all listed on there. I do sell some of the originals from the Mercy Watson because I have so many of those.”

Van Dusen said originals of his he does not sell because once they’re gone they’re gone.

 

Audience question: Do you find that there are certain things in an age group you are targeting kids are drawn to in a book and also, has that changed over the years.

Van Dusen: “The way I approach a book is I go by two criteria. “I ask myself if this a book I would have liked when I was six years old? I have a very keen memory of my childhood. I can’t remember what I had for dinner last night, but I can remember what I got for Christmas when I was six years old.”

Van Dusen said he taps into his memory as a kid and surprisingly things he loved as a kid, kids still love.

“Dinosaurs,” he said. “Dinosaurs will never go out of style. Kids just love dinosaurs. Dinosaurs, monsters and aliens, things like that. All of these things that are fascinating to kids. However, I do find children’s books have changed since I started.”

Van Dusen said a lot of the illustrations in current children’s books are much simpler then the types of illustrations he does.

“I just saw written in a review that there is a name for that,” he said. “As opposed to minimalists, illustrators who do big illustrations with a lot of detail are called maximalists. I’ve never heard of that word, but I guess that’s what I am because I do big, detailed, full color illustrations.”

Van Dusen said if you go to a book store and look at the current children’s books you’ll see that the illustrations are very simple with a lot of white space.

“I’ll still do what I do because that’s what has worked for me,” he said. “I’ve also noticed some of the themes have changed now as well. They’re not so much classic story art, which is what I do. You introduce the character, the problem and then the climax, resolution, things like that. A lot of them are about feelings, family, being in a family and being loved. There are a lot of books about diversity now, kids from different cultures and races and they are all very important.”

Van Dusen said he was looking at doing something quieter and more heart felt.

The packed room of Quarry Hill residents had a wonderful time listening to the author and illustrator talk for an hour and delighted in asking questions about his work.

The Owl and Turtle Bookshop and Café was on hand to sell copies of all of Chris Van Dusen’s books and Van Dusen gladly signed copies for those who purchased them.