In suitably seafaring fashion, Chris Van Dusen set sail last week to promote The Circus Ship, his September picture book from Candlewick, which is loosely based on a true maritime story that has intrigued residents of coastal Maine for many generations. Traveling by state ferry, mail boat and (for one leg) a four-seater plane, the author has been island-hopping, starting out in North Haven and touching down in such scenic spots as Isle au Haut, Deer Isle and Mount Desert Island. On October 16, he will reach his final port of call, Matinicus, located 23 miles off the mainland.

The Circus Ship was inspired by the tale of the Royal Tar, a steamship carrying circus animals and a brass band that set off from New Brunswick, Canada, in 1836, bound for Portland and Boston. Alas, the ship caught fire and sank in Penobscot Bay, spawning legends and lore that have flourished Down East for 173 years.

Van Dusen and crew aboard the mailboat heading to Isle au Haut.

Born in Portland and now a resident of Camden, Maine, Van Dusen first read about the Royal Tar in an article in DownEast magazine some 20 years ago. “I though it was an amazing story and the fact that it happened right in my back yard really caught my attention,” he said. “But at the time I wasn’t yet writing or illustrating children’s books, so I tucked the story away in a corner of my brain, and then much later the idea resurfaced.”

The author says it took him a long time to figure out how to tell the story, “since it’s quite tragic and scary and I couldn’t expect kids to go to sleep after reading it. So I lightened it up quite a bit and made it more of an adventure, imagining what would have happened if the animals survived the shipwreck.”

Chris Van Dusen and Judith Jerome.

Van Dusen is not sailing solo on his 11-island tour. He is accompanied by Jan Coates, a former bookseller and executive director of Island Readers and Writers, an organization committed to creating programming to inspire a passion for reading in children; and by Judith Jerome, a storyteller who is the artistic director of Maine’s Stonington Opera House.

Coates, who organized the tour, says this is her group’s most extensive author tour to date. The trio is visiting a wide spectrum of elementary schools, including one-room schoolhouses and schools with multi-grade classrooms. The tour also entails events involving the islands’ adult residents, held in community centers, town halls and high-school gyms. “We have had tremendous cooperation and collaboration, not only from school library systems, but from historical societies all the way up the coast,” Coates reports. “The marriage between Chris’s book and factual events presented a great opportunity to arrange community events on each island and to give adults a chance to share with kids their stories about the wreck of the Royal Tar and about local history.”

Van Dusen signs copies of The Circus Ship
for students in Frenchboro.

Jerome, who relays the story of the Royal Tar to students and adults at each stop, is impressed by the extent to which the shipwreck still resonates among coastal Mainers. “It is amazing how current this story still is and it’s been great to collect more and more stories wherever we go,” she says. “And now, with Chris’s book, the tale is enthralling a new generation. The Circus Ship satisfies our longing about what might have been the outcome for the menagerie of animals. It’s actually a beautiful thing to watch the children listen to Chris reading the book and to watch them walk away, big-eyed, clutching their own autographed copies. The book seems to cast a spell.”

Speaking by phone on one of the last days of his tour, Van Dusen admits to being “a bit sea-weary,” yet is clearly enjoying his island travels. “I’ve been to places I’ve never been, even as a native Mainer,” he says. “It has been so rewarding to see how appreciative the kids are that we made the effort to come to their island, and also to hear people share local folklore surrounding the Royal Tar. All around, it’s been smooth sailing so far.”

The Circus Ship by Chris Van Dusen. Candlewick, $16.99 Sept. ISBN 978-0-7636-3090-4