In Chris Van Dusen’s rhyming story Big Truck Little Island, a jack-knifed truck blocks a small island’s single road—and that means that Barry, Meg, Pete, and Sue won’t be able to get to their appointments. The adults who are driving them seem flummoxed, so the kids confer and come up with an ingenious solution: the families should just exchange cars. PW spoke with Van Dusen about the real-life inspiration for the book, what his story says about the power of community and the current state of our often uncivil society, and the ongoing inspiration of Maine and its tradition of picture book authors.
In your afterword, you write that the book was based on an actual incident that took place on Vinalhaven Island, in your home state of Maine. What elements from that story struck you as being right for a picture book?
Vinalhaven is right off Mid-Coast Maine, where I live. You can see the island from my town.
I can’t remember who I heard the story from, but when I heard it I knew it was such a simple and ingenious solution to a real-life problem—I couldn’t believe they thought of something so perfect. When I mentioned it to people on the mainland, they said, “What a brilliant solution.” But when I mentioned it to people on Vinalhaven, they kind of scratched their heads and said, “Why are you even writing a book about this? That’s what we do here. We leave our keys in the cars, and if you need a truck, you just borrow it.” They have to work together—that’s how they survive and get by.
I wasn’t sure there was enough for a children’s book with the original story, which happened when there was a big wind turbine construction project on Vinalhaven [a photo related to the project is included in the afterword]. I wanted to make it more kid-friendly, and friends of mine, Matt and Maya Myers [most recently, the authors of Dino-Gro and Not Little], suggested, “You ought to have the kids come up with the solution.”
My agent, Steve Malk, thought I should send it off, and it seemed like a Candlewick book to me—they’ve been really great to me and have published all the Mercy Watson books. I’ve had the same editor there from day one, Joan Powers, and she said it was a good story, too.
How did the book take shape?
My first version was much more complex—I was going to pull out all the stops. I liked the way Jon Klassen divided We Found a Hat into parts; I thought about having part one be “The Truck Arrives” and part two be “Traffic Trouble.” I even envisioned having a gatefold where you’d see the truck, and the traffic and the kids. But I talked it over with my art director, Ann Stott, and we decided to keep [the format] pretty direct and minimal.
I do like writing in rhyme—it actually comes easier to me, which makes some of my writer friends scratch their heads and think I’m crazy. I like the structure and the limits rhyme places on me—when I have unlimited words and sentences, it throws me. But I also wrote in rhyme because I was getting requests for rhyming books. I’ve only written one non-rhyming book, Hattie and Hudson, and that was a more serious topic. I didn’t want Big Truck, Little Island to be heavy—I wanted an upbeat, lively, fun read.
While it’s got “truck” in the title, the story’s themes run much deeper. Why did those themes resonate with you?
I’d been receiving emails about, “My son loves truck books, I hope you’ve got more truck books coming.” But even though the title is Big Truck, Little Island, this book is really about problem-solving and ingenuity—it’s the solutions that happen around the truck that are the basis of this story.
On the surface, it’s really a very simple story—it’s probably the slightest book, plot-wise, that I’ve ever written. What I liked about it were the layers beneath, the themes of trust, cooperation, neighborliness—layers to peel away like an onion as you started thinking them through.
It really couldn’t have come at a better time, because we need that way of thinking: working together, solving problem, cooperating. That’s what you get on an island, that tight-knit work ethic. You get things done. You don’t complain—it’s “let’s solve this problem.” I do think it’s really timely given the way that things are so divided in the country. Listening to the [Ketanji Brown] Jackson [Supreme Court confirmation] hearings and how nasty that got for no apparent reason, in my view—I just think if people saw that they have to work together, they could also see that if they run into a roadblock there’s a way around it.
I love how these kids say, “Look, we’re friends, we know each other. Let’s just borrow each other’s cars.” And that’s what they do. That makes perfect sense.
Instead of focusing on the four kid protagonists from the very beginning, you open with two spreads of the barge making its way to the island, including one that’s an expansive, detailed bird’s-eye view of the island and the bay. How did you make that choice?
Opening with the truck on the barge made it a more theatrical, like introducing a character: here’s what happens when a huge truck comes onto the island and tries to make its way up these little roads.
That spread [where the island is revealed] was probably the hardest illustration in the book to do—to paint all those fields and houses and rocks and birds. I’m a huge fan of Robert McCloskey, and it’s the kind of detail he’d put in his illustrations. And that’s the kind of picture I would have loved when I was six: where does the road go, who lives in those houses? Barbara Cooney was also a big influence: I pulled out my copy of Miss Rumphius to see how she did the lupins that appear in the pages.
There really is a rich tradition of Maine picture book writers. A lot of my books look like they’re set in Maine, and Circus Ship mentions Maine by name. But the location of the island in Big Truck, Little Island isn’t named in the story itself. And some of the elements on the island are not specific to Vinalhaven. I’ve been to the island a number of times, but I specially didn’t go out and take reference photos or do research. I didn’t want people to say, “That’s not where that is.”
What’s next for you?
Another Mercy Watson book will be out late September, A Very Mercy Christmas. I’m working on the last book in the Tales for Deckawoo Drive series—it’s a spin-off of the Mercy Watson series, and since it’s the last book, it will be twice as long as the previous books and a little snazzier. There’s an If I Built book in the pipeline. There are definitely a lot of projects.
Big Truck Little Island by Chris Van Dusen. Candlewick, $19.99 May 3 ISBN 978-1-5362-0393-6