Chris Van Dusen was born on St. Patrick's Day in 1960 in Portland, Maine. He attended The University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth and graduated with a BFA degree in 1982. He spent several years illustrating for kids magazines before he wrote his first book, DOWN TO THE SEA WITH MR. MAGEE which was published by Chronicle Books in 2000. His latest, IF I BUILT A HOUSE is his fourteenth book. IF I BUILT A CAR and the follow-up, IF I BUILT A HOUSE, detail the decidedly futuristic, but simultaneously retro, visions of a boy named Jack. Why did you decide to root Jack’s forward-looking fantasies in a time before much of the digital technology we now take for granted?
In my opinion, the everyday designs of the 50s and 60s were so much more interesting than the way things look today. The cars were cooler, the houses more sleek, everything from furniture to fashion was so much more appealing back then. Even the colors stood out.
That's probably why there is so much interest in the "retro" look these days. I LOVE things from this era, and so I never even considered putting Jack (the main character from the If I Built... books) in the present day. In my mind, he had to exist in 1964. Picture books can be a great way for teachers to connect art and literacy. Since many of our readers are likely more familiar with the literacy aspect, can you talk a little about the process and techniques you used to create the illustrations for IF I BUILT A HOUSE?
All of my illustrations are traditional paintings. I use a paint called gouache (I tell kids it rhymes with "squash") which is sort of like an opaque watercolor. It reproduces extremely well. In other words, the colors you see in the printed book are almost exactly identical to the original art. I do not use computers to produce my illustrations. A lot of people think I do because my colors are so flat and smooth, but that's another thing you can do with gouache.
I paint my illustrations on cold press illustration board which has a slight texture. Before I start a painting, I've already sketched and re-sketched the picture several times. Then I transfer the final sketch to the illustration board and start painting. I usually paint a picture from the background to the foreground. For example, if I'm painting an outdoor scene I almost always start with the sky. Since gouache is opaque, I can add things in layers and build up the painting as I go. I like to experiment with gouache and use it in all sorts of different ways. You can get some terrific effects as a result. A typical spread illustration (that's a picture that goes across two pages) takes me about 2-3 weeks to paint. So to complete the illustrations for a 32 page book can take several months! Many aspects of your work have been inspired/influenced by Dr. Seuss and you’ve been known to sneak nods to the legendary author into your illustrations. What Dr. Seussisms might sleuthy students find in IF I BUILT A HOUSE?
Besides the basic format of the book (which was inspired by a formula Dr. Seuss used in a lot of his books, specifically IF I RAN THE ZOO and IF I RAN THE CIRCUS) there are a few things that, like you say, are nods to Dr. Seuss. Things like the gloved hands on the "Kitchen-O-Mat" and the red and white stripes in Jack's shirt and elsewhere that are similar to the stripes on the hat of THE CAT IN THE HAT. There are also several little things in the illustrations that I picked up from IF I BUILT A CAR. I think kids will have fun discovering those as well. Your book THE CIRCUS SHIP was used extensively in Maine’s classrooms. What is your favorite classroom lesson/activity that you’ve witnessed using one of your picture books?
It's always very rewarding when a teacher uses one of my books to develop creative projects for their students. I've seen several Circus Ships in the schools I've visited where a different student draws an animal, cuts it out and pastes it on to the ship. One ship I saw was about 15 feet long and extremely impressive! I've heard of teachers that read the "Mercy Watson" books while the kids munch on hot buttered toast. AND IF I BUILT A CAR has nicely inspired many kids to use their imagination and create their own cars. I've seen cars made out of shoe boxes (and bigger!) and elaborate drawings rich with detail of all sorts of imagined cars. Like I said, it really makes me feel good. Your books are written in rhyme and reviewers note that they read smoothly and effortlessly. How do you keep your rhyming skills so sharp?
Rhyming is tricky, but it's my preferred way to write. I say it's tricky because if it's done right, you hardly even notice it, but if it's off, it sticks out like a sore thumb. It's hard work to make a book rhyme from start to finish, flow effortlessly, and still carry on a continuous story. I work my lines over and over again until they scan without hitches. It’s almost musical in a way. There has to be a beat to each line, and the beat has to stay consistent throughout the book.
When I'm working on a story, I constantly read it out loud over and over again. If I stumble on a line, it's tweaked until it's just right. I occasionally use a rhyming dictionary, but not very often. And rarely do I start writing a book at the beginning and work through until the end because you may come up with a really good rhyme that may work at the end of the story. So I jot everything down on small scraps of paper and then piece it all together like a puzzle. It's an odd way to create a story I know, but it seems to work for me.
© 2012 International Reading Association. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise. 5 Questions With... J. Patrick Lewis and Jane Yolen (TAKE TWO! A CELEBRATION OF TWINS) Reviews of Winter Books for Children