Chris Van Dusen's The Circus Ship
Book review by Sherri Trudgian
A Tall Circus Tale: Learning to Accept the Differences of Others
Chris Van Dusen is both a master story teller and artist. His children’s tale The Circus Ship is set amid the water and islands surrounding the state of Maine.
Although his adventure is loosely based on the sinking of the “Royal Tar” in 1836, he has taken a tragic event and woven it into a delightful children’s story. Listed among the lost cargo that day was a host of exotic circus animals. The adventure begins with these animals and their not so nice, downright nasty circus owner “Mr. Paine”.
“Five miles off the coast of Maine and slightly overdue, a circus ship was steaming south in fog as thick as stew.”
Mr. Carrington, the “honest Abe” look-a-like captain, wants to drop anchor. He warns the circus boss of the dangers of continuing the cruise. It’s unthinkable that Mr. Paine’s plans should be thwarted. He immediately intimidates the mild captain with his stomping and screaming. The aptly named “Mr. Paine” insists that he be in Boston by two.
Disaster awaits. The ship hits a shoal and sinks throwing its passengers and cargo into the brink. The sea does indeed become a stew filled with thrashing exotic animals swimming round and round. The captain wants to save the animals but Mr. Paine yells, “Why, sir, what are you, DAFT? It’s ME that you should rescue! Pull me up into the raft!”
After a long night in the chilly waters, the animals stagger onto the shore of a nameless island. The villagers awaken to a most disturbing sight – a host of bedraggled exotic animals.
“They thought they saw an elephant – but wait, how could that be? And what’s that little monkey doing in the cherry tree?”
The villagers, who are leery of their unfamiliar visitors, find them quite annoying.
“And Mrs. Dottie Dailey, who grew daisies by the bunch, discovered that the zebra had been eating them for lunch!”
However, all negative criticism of the visitors changes on one fateful night. A home of one of the villagers catches fire. The sight of the blazing cottage triggers an immediate reaction from the tiger. Visions of flaming rings flash through his mind. The years of circus training have prepared him for this moment. With no thought for his own well-being, tiger leaps through the flames into the house and emerges with little Emma Rose on his back.
The once bothersome creatures are now heroes. They are welcomed as friends and become contributing members to the village community. The elephant loves children and enjoys being both fountain and slide at the village water park. The two-humped camel makes an excellent taxi. This symbiotic relationship remains undisturbed until the day Mr. Paine returns to claim his property.
“So the people called a meeting, and quickly hatched a plan: No animal that came ashore would sail off with that man.”
Although he searches high and low, Mr. Paine is unable to spot his fifteen circus animals cleverly hidden around the village.
Finally, afraid that he will miss his boat, the circus boss runs off in a fit of rage.
“And from that day they like to say their lives were free of ‘Paine.’ It was a happy, peaceful place upon that isle in Maine.”
Chris Van Dusen wears two hats as both author and illustrator with panache. This action packed adventure is highlighted not only by great rhythm and rhyme but enough alliteration to set young children on the path to becoming readers.
“There’s an ostrich in the outhouse! … There’s a tiger in the tulips! … There’s a lion on the lawn! … There’s a python in the pantry!”
His caricature of Mr. Paine as a big headed, red sweaty-faced man with puffed up chest and large mouth is spot on. Couple this image with words such as “terribly demanding”, “stomped”, “screamed” and “barked” and one receives a very clear picture of Mr. Paine’s bombastic nature. The illustration of the captain dragging Mr. Paine out of the water into the life boat is particularly comical. All that can be seen of Mr. Paine is his oversized “derrière. There can be no doubt that Mr. Paine has made a huge ass of himself by saving his own skin and abandoning his animals to their watery fate!
Besides the obvious name “Mr. Paine”, other clever puns are sprinkled throughout the story.
“And Miss Fannie Feeney found – according to the rumors – the silly little circus monkey swinging in her bloomers!”
Chris Van Dusen masterly uses contrast for emphasis in this story. Mr. Paine’s cowardice becomes stark when seen in the light of tiger’s bravery. He is selfish and tiger is selfless. Mr. Paine insists on being the first out of the water and the tiger is the first into the blaze to save Emma Rose.
With rich bold colors in his artistic palette, Chris Van Dusen also uses contrasting light and darkness for emphasis. The story starts out with a beacon of hope. The glimmer of the ship’s gas lamp can be seen amidst the thick dark ocean fog. Hope is realized at the story’s climax. Tiger emerges from the fiery blaze saving Emma Rose.
The circus animals are portrayed as fun not scary. The illustration containing the hidden animals is of course his pièce de résistance. Children of all ages will have fun trying to find the fifteen animals cleverly camouflaged in the background. I especially loved the spider monkey wearing a bonnet and sucking his thumb in Mrs. Fannie Feeney’s pram.
In The Circus Ship, Chris Van Dusen espouses the virtues of life. The triumph of goodness over evil, valor over cowardice, community over isolation, and acceptance over prejudice are all ideals we want to instill in our children.
Good books like old friends elicit emotions filled with warmth. It has given me great pleasure to introduce you to one of them!
Read more of Sherri's reviews.
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