NOTE: This was originally released on “Moms Do Have Time to Read Books.”
I am so excited to be talking to Chris Van Dusen today. Chris Van Dusen is an amazing children's book author and illustrator, someone who I've been reading since my big kids were born. It’s been almost twelve years. Now, my little kids love all of his work. I'm very excited. A native of Maine, Chris has written and illustrated many books including Down to the Sea with Mr. Magee, his first book, then A Camping Spree with Mr. Magee and Learning to Ski with Mr. Magee, The Circus Ship, which is a huge favorite of many people, King Hugos’s Huge Ego, Randy Riley’s Big Hit, Hattie & Hudson, and my two personal favorites, If I Built a House and If I Built a Car. He’s also illustrated the Mercy Watson series written by Kate DiCamillo. He has contributed drawing to magazines including Nickelodeon, Family Fun, and Disney Adventures. He graduated with a BFA from the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth. Chris currently lives in Maine with his wife and children.
Welcome to “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.” Thank you so much for agreeing to do this Skype interview with me and also with my four and five-year-old kids here.
Chris Van Dusen: I'm glad to be here. Thank you for having me.
Zibby: We wanted to know, how do you come up with the ideas for all of your books? Start with If I Built a House and If I Built a Car. Tell us more about the inspiration for those books.
Chris: The inspiration for those books, it was inspired by Dr. Seuss, who was my favorite author ever. There were two books in particular that Dr. Seuss wrote that really inspired this book. One was called If I Ran the Zoo and If I Ran the Circus. In those books, it starts with this boy. I can't remember what the boy’s name is. It starts with him. He imagines what he would do if he built a circus and all the different acts. It got crazier and crazier and crazier until at the very end, the last picture is he’s back in the same place that he started. It’s all been his imagination. I kind of used that as the format for these books. I didn't want to totally copy Dr. Seuss and do about a circus or a zoo.
I started thinking about the things that I really liked when I was a kid. I really liked cars. If I Built a Car was the first one. There was book I used to take out of the library. It was all about those experimental cars that car companies built to bring around to cars show. They never actually go into production. They’re really cool with fins and domes and all this crazy stuff. I used that as the basis. Each page of the book becomes another feature of the car until it builds and builds and builds and builds ‘til it’s really, really, really crazy. Then, boom, you're back in the dad’s car. That's really what inspired that. The house book, it was the same format, only that time I decided to have Jack’s mom be the character that he shows in the house. If I Built a School, which I'm working on right now, it’s going to come out this fall. I'm going to have to crank it out. In that book, it’s still Jack. Jack shows his teacher through the features of this crazy school.
Zibby: Are you going to weave in elements from some of the other books? Is he going to show up at school in his car in If I Built a Car?
Chris: The car is in there. Let’s see. What else is in there?
Zibby: Is Mr. Magee and his little dog Dee, are they going to make an appearance?
Chris: I can stick him in there. I haven't put him in yet. I was just talking to my neighbors. They came over to see some of the illustrations. I got to put him in there too. I think I got a good place to put him in there. He becomes this Easter egg in all the books where kids find him. Have you guys seen Mr. Magee in some of the other books?
Zibby: Remember how we found him on the water in Hattie & Hudson, right Sadie? She's getting the book now to show you, to illustrate. [laughs] Speaking of illustrating, what do you do first when you're writing your books? Do you illustrate? Do you come up with the storyline? Do you start with the drawing and then think, “This is amazing. Let's make it a book?”
Chris: I can show you, actually, because I'm working on another story right now. This is a good example of how I start a book.
Zibby: He’s showing us how he starts a book, guys. Sadie is showing you how she found Mr. Magee in If I Built a House.
Chris: There's Mr. Magee. Good job.
Zibby: Sorry, tell us about how you start.
Chris: I always start with a piece of paper like this. I'm not sure if you can see it. It’s a piece of paper with rectangles on it. What it is, it describes what's going to happen on each page. This is for a potential new Mr. Magee story that I'm working on. I'd like to bring it back for one more adventure. Sometimes when I do that, I will do things like this. I will do these little drawings on the page. They're tiny, little thumbnail drawings of what I imagine some of the action might be. I do this before I even write the story. I just have to figure out what's going to happen on each page. Sometimes I will [indiscernible] little thumbnails before I write the story. I really have to write the story completely before I do the illustrations. Usually, the manuscript is completely written before I do the final illustrations.
Zibby: Is that the way you did it for The Circus Ship? Tell us about The Circus Ship. I've heard that's based on a true story. That can't be real. Was that really, actually based on a true story?
Chris: It was loosely based on a true story. There really was a ship carrying a circus. That happened back in 1836. I put it in the author’s note in the back of the book. It was a steamship that was carrying a circus from Saint John, New Brunswick, to Portland, Maine. It ran into a big storm right off the coast. I live on the coast of Maine. It was right off the coast of Maine where this ship went down. Actually, the real story, the ship caught fire, which was really traumatic. I read it about first a long time in a magazine, this story. It must have popped back in my head at one point because I thought it’d be a good story. I didn't want to tell the actual story because it’s really traumatic. It was really scary. They think a lot of the animals perished. People actually died in the shipwreck as well. I said, “What if we totally reimagined the end?” What if the ship carrying a circus really does sink, but then all the animals swim off and make it to an island off the coast of Maine? Then what would happen? That's basically what I did. I played the what-if card. What if things happened differently? That's the way I approached that.
Zibby: How did you get your start doing children's books? I read about it on your bio, but tell listeners more about how you got into this and what makes you love it so much.
Chris: I was an art major in college, actually a painting major. I thought I was going to be a college painting professor. That was my goal. I took some illustration courses also in college. When I got out of school, I still was doing paintings, but I started doing some freelance illustration. At first, it was just small jobs like somebody's business card or a logo for somebody. I remember one of the very first jobs I did were swing set instructions for a company. I had all these pieces that I had to figure out how they go together. Eventually, the more work I got, the more I was able to specialize in what I really wanted to do.
The type of illustration I really loved doing were illustrations for kid’s magazines because they could be really fun and cartoony and bright colors. I was doing a lot of magazine work for kid’s magazines back in the eighties and nineties. Then an idea for my first book popped in my head. My first book was called Down to the Sea with Mr. Magee. The idea popped in my head. That's how I really started. I worked on that in my spare time, got it so it really seemed like a book to me, and then had some friends who were writers read it. They thought it was pretty decent. It all went from there. Luckily, I don't know how it happened, but I got the book published. Then after that, I never looked back. I've just been doing kid’s books since then.
Zibby: Wow. How long does each kid’s book typically take you, the writing, the painting? You paint? You don't draw any of it? You paint it?
Chris: I paint. All my illustrations are done in a paint called gouache, which is G-O-U-A-C-H-E. Gouache is a water-based paint. It’s kind of like an opaque watercolor. It’s like a thick watercolor. What I do is -- hold on. I'm going to show you. I'm going to pick up the computer here and see if I can show you. This is a big bank of flat files over here. I got all my robots over here. On these, I've got these plastic plates and plastic bags. All these colors are mixed. These are all the colors I'm using for If I Built a School. I've got them all labelled. This is the teacher’s skin color. I've got it all labelled and numbered so I can just go through. All I have to do is just add a little water to that paint. It’ll come right back. I do all my illustrations in gouache. To answer your original question, a book in general takes about a year to do. That's writing it and illustrating it. I did keep track of how long it took me to do the illustrations for If I Built a Car. It was about nine months. I'm cranking on this one. I got to get this one done.
Zibby: Have you thought about -- I probably could've researched -- have any of your books been optioned? I feel like it would be such a fantastic movie or TV show, any of the characters in any of the books, honestly. They're so visual. You can immerse yourself in your world so well.
Chris: There has been interest in The Circus Ship. A pretty famous writer optioned it to turn it into a screenplay. In other words, he bought the rights to turn the story into a screenplay. I was really excited. I talked to him a few times. Then it just dissolved. I didn't hear anything. Then the next thing I knew, the rights came back. There's still some interest in The Circus Ship. Some people are talking about that. There's been a little bit of talk about one of my other books for an animated movie. Hollywood is so fickle. You never really know. You get really excited, and then nothing happens. The way I approach it is I’ll believe it when I see it. It’d be really fun.
Zibby: I feel like it’s such a natural -- I'd love to watch it. [laughs] What about doing some sort of a pop-up installation? I had this idea, how great it would be if you could actually build some sort of house resembling your dream house, even though obviously some elements couldn't happen, even if you put it in a children's museum, to be able to walk through it or design the car, have some sort of real-life model of it. No? Crazy?
Chris: I was wondering what you meant by that question. I'm glad you explained that a little bit. I live in Maine. The children's museum in Portland, Maine, actually surprised me a few years ago. They were going to update their outdoor play area. It’s a really nice little museum. They got all sorts of interactive things inside. It’s right in downtown Portland. They have this little back area. It was an outdoor play area, but it was kind of run down. They asked me if I'd come down to the museum because they wanted to propose something. I had no idea what was going to go on. I went down. We went into this conference room. They pulled out these sketches. They wanted to turn the outdoor play area to Down to the Sea with Mr. Magee, the whole thing. They showed me all these sketches and what they were going to do. I said, “Wow. If you guys could do this, this is great.” Next thing I know, six months later it opened. It’s still there. The museum is going to change location. They're building a new museum, so I don't know if that’s going to go.
The way it is now, you come out of the museum and you're in Mr. Magee’s kitchen. They have these chrome tables out on the deck. That little hat Mr. Magee has, the kids can put on. Then you go down the stairs into the outdoor play area. You go around a circle. They’ve got a village. They’ve got his boat that you can steer. They’ve got the shipwreck, which is a big climbing structure. They have these carved whales that spout water. Right in the middle, the centerpiece is an island with a tree. Way up on top, they’ve built this sculpture that’s probably about six feet long of Mr. Magee and his little dog Dee in the boat, looking over. It’s almost like you're walking down and you're walking right into the book. It’s really cool. I’d love it to be in the new museum, but I don't know if they're going to move it.
Zibby: I hope so. I would bring my kids up right now. That would be so fun. That sounds amazing. How is it that you get all these joyful colors? Was your intention, “I want to make these as happy and joyful as I can, therefore I'm putting in all these bright colors?” Are you just naturally drawn to those types of colors? Is that what you were doing back in college? How did it come to be?
Chris: I was using those colors when I was doing the illustrations for the kid’s magazines. They were these cartoony illustrations. They tend to be bright and colorful anyway. You can get some really beautiful, bright colors with gouache. They really pop out. My colors were always sort of bright. Certain books are toned down a little bit. Some are brighter than others. The Circus Ship is a little bit more naturalistic in a way. Those colors are a little bit more muted. It really depends on the book too. If a book is crazy and over the top like the one I'm working on now, the colors are pretty bright. They're those fifties and sixties colors which I like to use, those pastels and things like that. For books like The Circus Shipwhich took place back in the 1800s and it had to be a little bit muted, those colors are a little bit quieter, little bit more subtle. It really depends on the story. You don't want to take a story that's fairly serious -- I think Hattie & Hudson is a fairly serious story. The colors are still pretty bright, but I didn't want to go total gody on that. I really muted that down too. The colors primarily are blues and greens, capture that feeling of a lake in Maine in the summertime. It depends on the story.
Zibby: The scenes from the fifties and sixties, was that from your life? Are those all from your imagination? Is that the neighborhood where you grew up? It that fictious, all of it?
Chris: I was born in 1960. My parents built a ranch house in 1959. I grew up in this house. I wish I could see it now. It did have boomerang Formica. I think the countertops were aqua boomerang or something. I grew up in that era where there were those colors and those designs and all that retro stuff which is really popular now. Actually, in some of my books that really push the retro theme, I think parents and adults like them actually better than the kids. It’s just because that's what I grew up with. That's the stuff I really love. When you saw the robots over on the flat files, I love the fifties and sixties-inspired stuff.
Zibby: We designed our little kitchenette here in that same style, the little boomerangs, the blue. I’ll send you a picture. It’s exactly that. We went a snagged brown fridge and the whole deal. Maybe that's why I'm so drawn.
Chris: Now, they sell new refrigerators that are aqua.
Zibby: That's what I have.
Chris: Oh, you do?
Zibby: Yeah. I’ll show you. I’ll send you a picture. It’s pretty wild.
Chris: I'm jealous.
Zibby: How does it feel? Do you love connecting with the readers of your books? Do you like being out and about? Do you go to schools? Is the real-life interaction really rewarding to you? Are you more happy to stay at home and release these amazing books and let it fly by? What gives you the most joy in this process?
Chris: I do a fair amount of travel, especially if a new book comes out. The Mercy Watson book coming out, Candlewick Press, the publisher, is really getting behind it. In April and May I'm going to do a lot of travel, and into June. I'm going to do a lot of travel for that. I like that. It’s a little tiring, actually. It’s really fun to go back out. In general, what I do is very solitary. I basically sit in this back studio attached to my house. I just work all day long. School visits are a way to go out and see why you do what you do anyway. When you're in front of a group of third graders or something and you show them your books and you pull out Randy Riley’s Really Big Hit and they go crazy and they say, “We know that book,” or Mr. Magee books or something, it’s a way to go, “Oh, yeah. This is why I sit back there and work ‘til late in the night to get these things done.” It’s nice to reconnect with your audience every now and then. I like both parts. If I'm under a deadline, a lot of times I just can't take the time to go out and go on the road. I really have to crank away to meet a deadline. Like I said, when a new book comes out, a lot of times then I’ll go out. I’ll either go to bookstores and promote the book or I’ll start doing school visits and things like that.
Zibby: You have the new little baby Mercy book coming out, which is really exciting, If I Built a School, perhaps a new Mr. Magee book. Anything else? Secret plans?
Chris: The Mr. Magee book would be way, way in the future. That's still in the process. There is another book coming out. I did a book with Balzer & Bray, which is a division of HarperCollins, that I did not write. Lisa Wheeler wrote it. It’s called Even Monsters Need to Sleep. I don't know if you've seen that. It came out the same year as Hattie & Hudson. What was that? Couple years ago, 2017. It was a going-to-bedtime book. It featured monsters and the different places where they sleep. It was really fun to illustrate. That was a two-book deal. The second one was called Even Monsters Go to School, which is kind of funny because I'm doing another school book. Here it is. These are the F&Gs for it. It features this little character here that I came up with and all the different places where monsters go to school. This is coming out in June.
Zibby: Can I take a picture of this?
Zibby: Smile. Love it. Thanks.
Chris: It talks about different monsters and where they go to school. I’ll show you one of my favorites. It’s actually where the aliens go to school.
Zibby: For listeners, he's holding up a book. On the cover was a little, purple monster about to board a school bus waving goodbye -- well, kind of a blueish-purple monster -- with a purple backpack and all these other monsters and looks like perhaps one regular kid in the school bus.
Chris: The story starts with this little monster. It’s clear from the illustrations that she's a little reluctant to go off to school. Her dad makes her breakfast. He's there. He starts telling her a story about different monsters and where they go to school. That's what starts the story. It talks about how Bigfoot goes off and loves riding the bus. Frankenstein has sneakers. It’s just a silly thing. It was fun to illustrate. That's coming out in June. I got The Piglet Named Mercy by Kate DiCamillo. That's in April. Even Monsters Go to School, that's in June. If I Built a School, which right now they're saying is going to come out in August. I've got to keep crankin’. That's with Dial. They're going to print the book in the United States to save time. It’s really tight. We’ll see if I can do it.
Zibby: Excellent. Do you ever sell the illustrations? Do you ever do commissions for people? Do people ever say, “Hey, would you paint this for me or my family?” Do you sell any of the illustrations from your books? Is that an ancillary revenue stream for you or anything?
Chris: I haven't yet sold the illustrations from my books that I've written. Once they're gone, they're gone. I hang onto them. I got them all stored in these boxes in my studio. I do, on my website, sell prints of some of my illustrations. A lot of times parents will want to buy a certain picture from The Circus Ship or whatever and put it up in their kid’s room. Those are for sale on the website. Also on that same tab on the website is some of the original illustrations from the first Mercy Watsonseries. I had like three hundred paintings just sitting around. I said, “Well, I don't really need to hold onto these.” I do sell those. Those are the originals. Those are the original paintings. Those are for sell. As far as my illustrations of my books, I haven't sold those yet. They're just available in print form. I do sometimes get people to ask me if I do commission work. They’ll want me to do a Christmas card or something for them. For the most part, I can't because my schedule’s so busy. I rarely do commissioned work. It’s mostly just books.
Zibby: It sounds like you pick and choose which authors, aside the books you write yourself, that you want to work with and will illustrate their books. You only do that sparingly because of time? Same thing?
Chris: Yeah. I got paired up with Kate DiCamillo on the first Mercy Watson series. It was so wonderful to be connected with her. Luckily, it’s very nice that she's kept that series going with the spin-off series and now this picture book. Coming up, I do have several more of the Tales from Deckawoo Driveseries, which is the second series that she wrote. I think I have three of those to do. Then I've got another book under contract with Candlewick, a book I wrote. That's probably not until -- I'm thinking several years out at this point because it takes so long for me to do the work.
Zibby: I feel bad now taking up this half an hour with you. You have so much to do. I'm feeling stressed out for you, like, “Go, go, go!” [laughs]
Chris: No worries.
Zibby: That's really it. I wanted to get a sense of where this genius of yours comes from. My older kids are almost twelve. My older daughter would kill me if didn't tell you how much she loved the Mercy Watsonillustrations. That was all she read for a year straight. The little guys and my older sons, we all just love your work. It’s been so exciting to even get to talk to you about it and see all the little snippets from what's to come and the outline. I really want to thank you for your time and for really delighting so many kids. I can't tell you how many parents were beyond thrilled that I was interviewing you. You have a huge fan base here. If your travels take you to New York City, let me know. We can do some event or something fun.
Chris: I wish I could've come down for it. I just couldn't fit it into my schedule right now. That would've been fun. Thank you for taking the time and interviewing me. I really appreciate it.
Zibby: Of course. Love to stay in touch. Can't wait to see your books.
Chris: Thanks, Zibby.
Zibby: Thanks, Chris. Take care. Buh-bye.