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Down to the Sea with Chris Van D.

By Carl Little

All images courtesy Chris Van Dusen

A detail from The Circus Ship. “Some people thought I was crazy to try to turn the tragic sinking of The Royal Tar into a children’s book,” noted Van Dusen. “It was a challenge for sure.”


His wife, Lori, came up with the idea to print the spines of his books on the risers of the stairs leading to Van Dusen’s home studio. Photo by Gretchen Piston Ogden “One day,” celebrated children’s book illustrator Chris Van Dusen recounts on his website, “I started thinking about drawing a picture of a boat stuck high up in a tree.” He thought that image would make “a really funny and intriguing illustration.” At the same time, a refrain kept running through his head: “Mr. Magee and his little dog, Dee, / Hopped in the car and drove down to the sea.” 

The combination of vision and verse eventually became Van Dusen’s first book, Down to the Sea with Mr. Magee, published in 2000. He has been busy writing and illustrating children’s books ever since—and ascending to the pinnacle of the country’s most beloved illustrators. 

Van Dusen never knows when an idea may pop into his head so he tries to keep a pencil and paper handy. Arguably his most famous book, the wildly and widely popular The Circus Ship (2009), was inspired by the story of a shipwreck in Down East magazine. In a 2022 interview, late-night TV host Seth Myers hailed The Circus Ship as “something every children’s book illustrator should aspire to.” 

The idea for Hattie and Hudson (2021), Van Dusen’s only non-rhyming book, took a long time to materialize. He wanted to write a book about a monster that lives in a Maine lake, but his original versions were “pretty dark”—so different from previous work that he thought people might think he’d lost it. The monster was mean and the hero of the book ended up destroying it—a return to the Grimms’ fairy tales of his childhood. 

Van Dusen’s illustrations can be as complex as this bird’s-eye view of Mr. Magee packing his camper, from A Camping Spree with Mr. Magee, 2003.

Shifting gears, Van Dusen chose to feature a gentle creature and a kid who befriends and saves it. He also changed the main character from Henry to Hattie. During school visits some students had asked if he was ever going to write a book with a female main character; maybe, he thought, this would be the perfect opportunity to introduce one. Hattie became one of his favorite characters, “strong, curious, and brave.”

Van Dusen also dropped the rhyming that had been his MO. “I was trying to tell a fairly serious story with an important message in a silly, whimsical way—it just didn’t make sense,” he recounted. After checking with his editor, he rewrote the story. Writing in prose proved to be much more difficult; he missed the structure that rhyme provides. He wrote the story at least nine times before he came up with the final text.

Van Dusen works fairly closely with his editor and art director at Candlewick Press, publisher of several of his books. He’ll drive down to Somerville, Massachusetts, and review the proofs page by page, making changes to text and images. On the other hand, when he’s illustrating someone else’s story, he may not talk to the author at all. “All my sketches go to the publisher, who forwards them to the author for approval.” Kate DiCamillo, Mac Barnett, and Lisa Wheeler are among the writers whose works he’s illustrated. 

A detail from Big Truck, Little Island, 2022, which is based on an actual event that occurred on the island of Vinalhaven.

With Big Truck Little Island, 2022, Van Dusen returned to rhyme. Inspired by an incident on Vinalhaven in which a truck hauling part of a wind turbine blocked a road, he turned the story into a tribute to some intrepid island kids who figure out a workaround while the adults are stymied. 

Several of Van Dusen’s books have led to series, including Down to the Sea with Mr. Magee, which spawned A Camping Spree with Mr. Magee and Learning to Ski with Mr. Magee. From the equally popular If I Built a Car, which won the 2006 E.B. White Read-Aloud Award from the Association of Booksellers for Children, House and School followed—and there’s another in the works, due out in fall 2025. 


While he can’t reveal the subject of the next If I Built book, Van Dusen does share that it will be longer, 40 pages instead of 32, and the main character, Jack, is “thinking even bigger this time.” The sketches are very detailed and it’s taking him a long time to paint the illustrations. “It will be worth the wait if it doesn’t kill me first!” he said.

That the sea appears in several of his books Van Dusen credits to living in a small town on the coast of Maine. “The sea is all around us,” he states, “and it has a major influence on my work as does the entire Maine environment.” He believes the fact that he is a Pisces may also come into play. 

The cover and a glimpse of an interior illustration of Van Dusen‘s first book, Down to the Sea with Mr. Magee. Now almost 25 years old, it remains in print.

Born in Portland in 1960, the fourth of five boys, Van Dusen lived in Raymond, Maine, until he was 4 or 5 years old, at which point his father took a job in central Massachusetts and the family moved to Harvard, Massachusetts. His grandparents still lived on Panther Pond in Raymond so every summer the Van Dusens would spend a few weeks with them. The Lakes Region and specifically that pond remain some of his favorite places in Maine. 

As a kid, Van Dusen wanted to be a comic strip artist, with Peanuts and BC his models. He spent hours creating a cast of characters and producing “pretty bad comic strips” in his spare time. He loved to draw and figured he’d end up doing something with art as a career. 

In high school Van Dusen was the go-to guy if anyone needed a drawing. He illustrated science fair posters and band concert programs and entered competitions sponsored by local arts organizations. 

Van Dusen’s second-grade teacher, Mrs. Mannix, was his all-time favorite. He remembers after lunch he and his classmates getting out their blankets and lying on the floor while she read the original Peter Pan with the lights out. “It was magical!” He published his first book in her class, a series of stories with drawings. The audio/video man from the library bound the work into what Van Dusen thought at the time was a real book. “I was so proud and I carried that thing around with me for a long time,” he recalled, adding, “I still get that feeling when a new book comes out.”

From high school Van Dusen went to Southeastern Massachusetts University (now UMass Dartmouth). He earned a bachelor’s of fine arts in 1982 and planned to become a college painting professor, but when he didn’t get into graduate school, he did “what all college kids do:” he became a waiter.

Van Dusen also took a job at a start-up magazine for high school students, working his way up to art director. He illustrated columns, working in different styles and trying new techniques while building his portfolio. 

The drawing table in Van Dusen’s home studio is “in mid-project messiness.” He goes there every day to work on his books.

In 1985 Van Dusen started working for MaineLine Greeting Cards in West Rockport, a gig that allowed him to return to Maine, his goal all along (he settled in Camden). When the company moved to New Jersey in 1988, he turned down the offer to follow it and struck out on his own, encouraged by a local girl, Lori Peters, whom he married in 1989. 

Van Dusen’s professional career as an illustrator was pretty slow at first; he took every job that came his way. He remembers illustrating the swing set instructions for Cedar Works in Rockport; as far as he knows they’re still using his drawings. 

Seeking to break into the national market, Van Dusen advertised in a directory that was shipped free to all the art directors and ad agencies across the country. Things started to pick up: He did illustrations for major magazines and corporations, but he quickly discovered that the work he enjoyed the most was illustrating for kids.

An illustration and preliminary sketch from Hattie & Hudson, 2017. This is the moment when brave Hattie meets the friendly lake monster for the first time.

In February 2025, the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath will be opening an interactive exhibition of Van Dusen’s work and books, featuring original illustrations, sketches, and “lots of additional fun things for kids to discover and explore.” It’s a fitting way to mark the 25th anniversary of his first book. 

An image of its main character, Mr. Magee, appears in all of Van Dusen’s books, like a good luck charm, as do the initials of his two sons, Ethan and Tucker. “The initials show up as TS or TSV and EB or EBV,” Van Dusen said. In some books he combines the initials with their first names, like the shoebox in If I Built a House with the label E. B. Tuckers. “Kids just like finding stuff like that,” he added. (Yes, they do, says someone who has joined his grandchildren on multiple occasions to try and find the hidden animals in what is perhaps The Circus Ship’s most engaging illustration.)

Van Dusen shares fatherly pride in his sons, who he never really pushed to become artists. That said, both boys—now 30-somethings—are artistic “in their own ways.” Ethan, the oldest, lives in California where he works for Patagonia. He is also a photographer whose eye for composition and light, said his dad, “is beautiful.” Tucker is a registered Maine Guide and a retail associate at L. L. Bean. “He can catch fish like nobody I know,” Van Dusen said, “and he gets to drive the Bootmobile!”

Van Dusen and his family in their Scout 175 Sport Dorado enjoying an evening cruise on Megunticook Lake in Camden. Photo by Lori Van Dusen

Van Dusen doesn’t consider himself all that famous nor does he think he has a very big fan base; some of us might question that modest self-appraisal. Occasionally, however, people will recognize him and “say the nicest things,” he said. And when he goes to schools to present various programs, he finds it rewarding to reconnect with his audience. “After all,” Van Dusen said, “it’s the kids who are the reason I do what I do.”

Carl Little lives and writes on Mount Desert Island. His latest book, in collaboration with his brother, David Little, is Art of Penobscot Bay (Islandport Press).


For More Information

Find more information about Chris Van Dusen at The Page Gallery in Camden carries some of his original artwork. He is featured in “The Great State of Illustration in Maine,” curated by Scott Nash and Nancy Gibson-Nash, at the University of Maine at Augusta’s Danforth Gallery, September to mid-October, 2024.






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