The Circus Ship
By Chris Van Dusen
Candlewick Press
ISBN: 9780763630904
Grades K-2
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You know how it goes – great story, weak illustrations. Or maybe it’s amazing artwork, slight story. This either/or inconsistency is the downfall of many a picture book. Not this time. Delightful from start to finish, The Circus Ship is fully-realized and well executed. Likely to be a go-to read aloud choice and a circulation champion.

The story is loosely based on real events that occurred in 1836, with rhyming verse that pulls the reader in from the beginning. On the way to Boston, a circus ship carrying exotic animals sinks. The circus owner, worried only about himself, jumps into a lifeboat and lets the animals fend for themselves. The assortment of fauna eventually find land – a small island off the coast of Maine. After winning over the locals, the animals begin to feel at home. It isn’t long, however, before the hot-headed circus owner reappears in the island, intent on bringing the animals back to the big top. With the help of the island residents, the animals send the blustery circus owner packing.

Bright and impressively detailed, Van Dusen’s (If I Built a Car) gouache illustrations raise this book to the next level. In the author’s note, Van Dusen explains that he “focused more on light source and texture in the artwork … This makes the book more complex and richer overall”. I agree – the richness of this artwork stands out as the best of his career thus far – and some of the best children’s book illustration of the year.

It works, and it works well. The Circus Ship is cohesive storytelling through and through. Be sure to add this to your collection.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This book is nominated for a 2009 Cybils Award.

Also reviewed by Provo City Children’s Book Review.

Find this book at your local library with WorldCat.