Brooklin students pay close attention as picture book author/illustrator Chris Van Dusen draws a goofy composite animal from their suggestions. PHOTO BY ELLEN BOORAEM

Author/illustrator brings alive story book-making

By Ellen Booraem

BROOKLIN — In Maine and beyond, ask children what they’d do with Mr. Magee and they’ll suggest “go to sea,” “a camping spree,” or “learn to ski.” (Yes, they all rhyme.)

Brooklin students were no exception when Camden author/illustrator Chris Van Dusen, Mr. Magee’s creator, visited their school Jan. 17. The kindergarten-to-grade-2 crowd, asked who’d read about the hapless boater, camper and skier, couldn’t raise their hands fast enough. Later, the kids gleefully pointed out Mr. Magee’s cameo appearance in “The Circus Ship,” a popular Van Dusen picture book about circus animals on board a ship that runs aground on the Maine coast, and his latest, “Hattie & Hudson.”

The award-winning author spent the entire day at the Brooklin School, drawing with middle-schoolers and explaining to grades 3 and 4 how an idea becomes a book (and how not to despair if the first draft goes wrong).

Kindergartner Lochlan Carter points out one of the hidden animals in a spread from Van Dusen’s “The Circus Ship.” Inspired by a true story, the story is about a circus ship that runs aground on the Maine coast. The circus animals clamber ashore and take over a coastal town.

With the youngest students, he read aloud from “The Circus Ship” and “Hattie & Hudson,” in which a young girl befriends a lake monster and makes an important point about not judging by appearances. “Things that may be scary when you just look at them may not be scary after all,” Van Dusen told his rapt audience.

He then thrilled the kids by creating a goofy composite beast from animals they suggested. One young wag tried to insist that an apple was an animal — Van Dusen grinned at the silliness but eased the subject over to horses.

Van Dusen’s appearance was a project of the Brooklin Parents, Teachers and Friends group, which raises funds from the community and meets monthly with teachers to identify the school’s funding needs. Author visits are high on the list, PTF President Molly Blake said.

“Maine authors are especially important,” she said. “To be able to expose students to great artists and authors, let them have conversations with them, experience more than just the book.”

The bottom line, she said, is to encourage children to read. “It’s always about a love of reading.”

Van Dusen’s books are aimed at younger kids and that’s the audience he usually sees during a visit. But the Brooklin middle-schoolers were delighted they got to draw with the artist, Principal Jil Blake said. “They’d say, ‘I read your books when I was little.’ It was very, super exciting for them.”

“It helps kids to see the face behind these books,” Van Dusen said.

He started his career doing illustrations for magazines, mostly children’s publications. In his late 30s he started seeing other magazine illustrators moving into picture books, which seemed like a less “disposable” medium. One day, the vision of a motorboat stuck high in a tree popped into his head, accompanied by a verse: “Mr. Magee and his little dog, Dee/Hopped in the car and drove down to the sea.”

“Down to the Sea with Mr. Magee” came out in 2000, when its author was 40. Today, he has written and illustrated nine of his own books as well as illustrating the Mercy Watson series by Newbury Award winner Kate DiCamillo. Closer to home, he created the Maine lobster specialty license plate and several L.L. Bean catalog covers.

Van Dusen has been doing three or four school visits a month every school year since his first book came out. “Writing is a very solitary career,” he said as grades 1 and 2 filed out of the school library. “Mostly I stay home and work. A school visit brings you back to why you do what you do in the first place.”

Seeing kids get excited about a book, he said, “makes all the difference.”

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