Chris Van Dusen is a force in children’s literature and art. He has contributed his talents to over a dozen books many of which are his own original stories. Among my favorites are his Mr. Magee series, Circus Ship and his latest, King Hugo’s Huge Ego. Chris and I have never met personally but both have admired one another’s work and after some correspondence we swapped books. I sent him Sid the Squid and he sent me Circus Ship.
Chris’ work and career is one for any artist to try and emulate including myself. So I asked Chris six questions about art, influences and story-telling. Here are his answers. I’m sure you’ll find them as inspiring and informative as I did.
Six Questions from author and artist Chris Van Dusen
As an artist & author do you begin with a story or do you begin with a drawing?
It can work both ways. Usually I start with a basic idea and
start mulling it over until a story forms in my mind. But sometimes
an image will pop into my head and I’ll do a quick sketch. Then I
think about the sketch, asking myself questions like, “who is that
guy?”, “how did he get there?” and “how will he get out of this
situation?”. That’s how my first book, “Down to the Sea with Mr.
When you first write your stories do you build an outline and then develop your rhymes?
After I have an idea for a story that I think might make a good
book, I create a story map to lay out the pages. This is usually just
a piece of paper with rectangles drawn on it that represent the
spreads of the book. Since most picture books are 32 or 40 pages
long, I briefly describe what will happen on each page, making sure
that the character(s) are introduced first, a conflict is presented
second and so on and so forth. I will sometimes change things around
to make sure the story is paced correctly. When I’m satisfied with
the story map, I then go ahead and write the story. Writing in rhyme
is a bit tricky though. It’s hard to write a story from beginning to
end because you may develop a rhyme that woks well at the end of the
story before you’ve even written the beginning. So often I’ll end up
with little scraps of paper that make up the entire story and then,
like a puzzle, I piece it all together. I also work really hard to
make sure my rhymes flow effortlessly. It’s all about beats and
rhythm- it’s really musical in a way. I’ve always said that if rhyme
is done well, you don’t even notice it, but if it’s off, it sticks
out like a sore thumb!
In King Hugo’s Huge Ego you practically animate King Hugo bouncing up and down. Have you ever animated and have animated movies influenced your work?
I’ve never done any animation, but I’ve been absolutely
fascinated by it ever since I was a little kid. I grew up watching
the Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Hour on Saturday mornings and I’m sure
that Warner Brothers has influenced my work. Hanna-Barbera, too. As a
result, most of my characters have a cartoon quality to them and my
colors are bright and clean, just like animation. It’s my dream to
have one of my books come to life through animation.
Circus ship was inspired by actual events; are any of your other stories inspired by personal experiences or actual events?
“The Circus Ship” is the only book of mine so far that was
directly inspired by an actual event. Some of my books have elements
from my childhood (like in “If I Built a Car”) but aside from SHIP,
they’re all made up. I’d like to explore another story from real
life, but so far I haven’t found the right person or event to write
about. I’m still searching.
You have a great ability to exaggerate size and proportion to emphasize story points. The uncanny thing is your ability to make it seem natural. When Mr. Paine marches into town searching for his circus animals he’s literally taller than houses-but it doesn’t feel out of proportion. Can you explain how you approach exaggerating a character’s size to emphasize story and character?
With each illustration, I sketch and sketch to find the best
scale, angle or perspective to depict the scene. It’s almost like I’m
a movie director composing a shot. Scale can help define a character.
In the illustration you mention from CIRCUS SHIP, Mr. Paine (the
villain) is indeed very big. But this is the part of the story where
he needed to appear intimidating and powerful. The people are scared
of him and his appearance on the island. Putting him in the
foreground allowed me to make him huge and the houses in the
background small by comparison. It’s how the scale would naturally
appear, but it has the subtle effect of a giant marching into town.
On your website you state influences such as Dr. Suess and Robert McCloskey, are there any other artists who have influenced your work?
There are so many artists who have influenced me and my work that
it would be impossible to name them all, but the list goes from N.C.
Wyeth to William Joyce. I’ve borrowed from the best!
Many artists are reluctant to share their methods and process. Chris on the other hand is charitable with his knowledge and compliments. In this digtal era were any mistake can be erased by hitting undo on your computer Chris uses actual media typically using gouache his medium of choice. At the end of the day Chris proves to me that it’s not so much his technique but the ideas and story that drive his artwork and books making them both timeless and memorable. Chris’ stories belong in every artist’s studio and every family’s library.