The Circus Ship by Chris Van Dusen is an engaging picture book filled with expressive animal illustrations and lilting rhyme. Chris Van Dusen’s previous books include A Camping Spree with Mr. Magee and If I Built a Car. About The Circus Ship, Van Dusen says, “I’ve focused on light sources and textures in the artwork for this story—on details like paint peeling off the clapboards of the houses. This makes the book more complex and richer overall than my previous work. Also, this is the first story I’ve written that has a villain, which was a lot of fun.” In an author’s note, Van Dusen reveals that the idea for The Circus Ship came from a real-life event, the wreck of a circus ship called the Royal Tar in 1836. He did not try to retell that story in his book, but instead wrote “a new adventure for children that [he hopes] still captures the spirit of the Royal Tar.”
The story begins with the wreck of a circus ship off the coast of Maine. While the ill-tempered circus manager escapes in a lifeboat, the fifteen circus animals are left to fend for themselves. They swim to an island and cause all sorts of trouble for the people who live in the village there. At first the villagers are annoyed, but they change their tune after a tiger saves a little girl from a burning building. When the angry circus manager comes to the island searching for his animal performers, the villagers hatch a plan to outwit him so the animals can continue living with them.
On nearly every spread, Van Dusen’s illustrations cover the entire page, leaving no white space. Many of the pictures have parts of people or animals cut off by edge of the page, as if Van Dusen were holding a camera and couldn’t quite fit all the action in the frame. This technique effectively immerses readers in each scene of the story. The animals’ bodies and faces are very expressive. A lion’s extended tongue and slumped shoulders convey exhaustion, while closed eyes and floppy “wrists” show that an alligator is very relaxed. Most fascinating is the spread where the animals are hiding in plain sight to avoid discovery by the circus manager. A camel’s humps look very much like the haystacks in the field around him, while a monkey is wearing a baby bonnet and being pushed in a stroller. No reader will want to turn the page without finding all fifteen camouflaged creatures.
Van Dusen uses rhyming four-line stanzas, giving the story a nice rhythm. He chooses strong verbs like “staggered” and evocative adjectives like “bedraggled.” The Circus Ship is best shared one-on-one to give readers and listeners the opportunity to notice all the details in the illustrations. However, this book can work with a small group, especially if the reader has time to pause on certain pages and show the illustrations to each child up-close. This story was a big hit when I read it to a small group of elementary schoolers this spring. It would also be appropriate for sharing with preschoolers.
Check the WRL catalog for The Circus Ship.