When circus animals get shipwrecked off the coast of Maine, it becomes a visually exciting romp and hide-and-seek in the pages of Chris Van Dusen’s new picture book, “The Circus Ship” (Candlewick Press, $16.99). Launched nationally on Tuesday, the new book is a winning blend of history and whimsy in words and pictures.
Inspired by the actual Oct. 25, 1836, sinking of the Royal Tar off Vinalhaven, the book will be of particular interest to island children and all Maine youngsters. But author and illustrator Van Dusen’s story of circus animals coming ashore and winning the hearts and protection of islanders is destined to have universal appeal.
“The book was a long time in the making,” Van Dusen said. It was about 20 years ago when he first read the story of the tragic shipwreck of the Royal Tar in an old copy of Down East magazine.
The actual maritime disaster began festively, with the circus band playing aboard a ship loaded with animals. But when a storm hit and the ship went down, all the circus animals were lost at sea, except a few snakes that were reportedly seen on the islands in ensuing years. “There was also a report of an elephant making it to the island,” Van Dusen said, “but reporting then was very sensationalized, so you really don’t know the whole story,” he said.
Overall, though, “this was a fascinating and an amazing story,” Van Dusen said, “and it happened right off the coast where I live.
“I had no desire to retell the really, really sad and scary true story of the wreck,” he explained. “I wanted to create a playful story in which the animals become heroes on the island, and I wanted kids to know that history is full of amazing events.”
In Van Dusen’s book waterlogged lions and tigers and other animals drag themselves ashore. The islanders are alarmed to see them in their gardens and around town, but they come to love them when a tiger, that is trained to jump through a ring of fire, rescues a child from a burning building. “That was the key” to the islanders becoming the animals’ protectors, Van Dusen said.
When the big, mean, pompous circus boss washes up on the island looking for those circus animals, islanders help hide the animals from his view. While most authors aim to create page turners, Van Dusen gets a kick out of making kids demand to linger on certain pages. The two-page spread that invites kids to find the disguised animals in the scene is nothing short of story-stopping, and is bound to extend the fun of the read-aloud or bedtime story experience for both parents and kids.
A book party is planned for 10 a.m.-noon Saturday, Sept. 26 at the Owl and Turtle Book Shop in Camden, and Van Dusen will also sign books at Barnes & Noble in Augusta at 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 3.
His book will be used in the Island Readers & Writers program, a nonprofit organization that brings together writers, artists and storytellers to celebrate reading and writing in interactive events created for island children. For information about the Island Readers & Writers tour, visit www.islandreadersandwriters.org.