The Circus Ship


Susan has found another wonderful book for our kids to enjoy:

A Pretty Darn Perfect Children’s Book – The Circus Ship, by Chris Van Dusen

What is a pretty darn perfect children’s book? For me, it has to appeal to children of different ages and genders. It must withstand multiple readings, preferably revealing something new every time. It needs to contain an intriguing, non-offensive story, beautiful illustrations, and well-written text. And, of course, it has to be fun for me to read, too.

Welcome to The Circus Ship.

Based on a true story, Chris Van Dusen’s book begins with a dramatic shipwreck. Dark blues and grays depict both mood and setting as a 19th century circus ship steams toward disaster, “in fog as thick as stew.” The fifteen circus animals – all the favorites, from an elephant to a giraffe, an ostrich to a gorilla – are bright spots on the dark sea. For a child, it doesn’t get much better than a boat and a zebra on the first pages of a book!

But Chris Van Dusen doesn’t stop there. He quickly introduces a villain, Mr. Paine, who is so exaggeratedly mean, so extravagantly caricatured, that he’s funny as well as threatening. His silly expression when the ship wrecks, with “a crash! An awful BASH!” makes the crash less scary for younger children.

The wreck, like most of the illustrations, is spread across two pages, which allows Van Dusen to present every emotion on a grand scale. The animals flung in every direction seem to fly right off the pages.

When Mr. Paine – the meanie – takes the lifeboat, the animals swim to shore. Soon, people in a small Maine town are startled to find “‘There’s an ostrich in the outhouse!’ ‘There’s a hippo in the spring!” Van Dusen combines the animals’ hijinks with a fascinating portrayal of life in the 19th century. Kids will giggle to see underwear (bloomers, no less) on a clothesline instead of in a dryer. And let’s not forget that outhouse!

When the tiger saves a small girl from a fire, the townspeople welcome the animals. Their life together will delight adults and children alike. Who hasn’t dreamed of sliding down an elephant’s back, or picnicking with a tiger? The scene itself is lovely enough to hang on a nursery room wall, with a beautifully-blue ocean view that makes me want to vacation in Maine.

But Van Dusen once again ups the drama — Mr. Paine wants his animals back. The solution? Hide the animals in plain sight. Van Dusen rises to true brilliance in a puzzle page in which children can search for the animals hidden in baby carriages and haystacks, under false moustaches and among river rocks.

And yes, there’s even a happy ending.

My only complaint with The Circus Ship? There’s no sequel. Yet.

Susan Fry is a writer and mother in the San Francisco Bay Area. She’s written for Stanford Magazine, salon, the San Jose Mercury News, and many other publications.

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