The Circus Ship: Review

The Circus Ship

By Chris Van Dusen

Published 2009 by Candlewick Press

This copy is from Christian’s collection.

In many children’s books on the topic, ‘circus’ becomes synonymous with ‘a gaggle of animals.’

Fortunately, due to Chris Van Dusen’s marvelous illustrations in The Circus Ship, we can forgive him for this egregious generalization.

As a review on the back of the book states, ‘the pictures are the true stunners.’ In each of his illustrations, Van Dusen depicts the vivid story of an ill-fated ship, its determined animal survivors, and the momentarily skeptical townspeople who receive these unexpected guests.

The story was inspired by a real event. In 1836, a vessel described as a ‘steamer and a sailing vessel with the advantages and disadvantages of each’ experienced a devastating fire about a mile off the coast of Maine. On board were more than 90 passengers and crew, as well as a variety of circus animals, who had just finished a three-month tour of the Maritimes in Canada1.

In Van Dusen’s version, the steamboat hits a ledge with a ‘CRASH’ and a ‘BASH.’ As the vessel sinks, the domineering circus boss Mr. Paine demands that his sole crewman Mr. Carrington row him to safety — with no regard for the animals’ welfare.

Luckily, in this completely non-tragic retelling, all of the animals can swim!

I applaud Van Dusen for incorporating vocabulary like ‘bedraggled’ into his description of the wild creatures’ state upon arriving to shore. Many authors limit the sophistication of their prose when writing for ages 4-8, when that age group has much to gain from ‘challenge’ words enveloped by strong visuals.

The town that receives the animals is based on the island of Vinalhaven, from whose coast residents witnessed the real-life steamboat catastrophe. It’s unsurprising that despite the event’s serious casualties (31 people drowned, while all of the animals were lost), rumors persisted about the animals’ true fate.

Van Dusen embraces this adventurous notion of townspeople suddenly finding ostriches, monkeys and elephants in their midst. The accompanying pictures capture incredible perspective and depth as the animals work their way into the town’s heart — making this a great book for young readers to get lost in.

For a read-aloud, I find some of the book’s four-line poems to be clunky and lazy, in keeping with its convenient plot devices (see: tiger rescuing a child from a burning shed to earn the town’s trust).

The predictable story nonetheless bears fruit in a splendidly illustrated spread featuring 15 cleverly hidden animals evading their red-faced owner’s retrieval (like any good villain, Mr. Paine charts a furious rowboat into the horizon).


While I loved the colorful illustrations and the spirit of the book, I wouldn’t recommend it as a stellar read-aloud on the topic of circus. Kids who love animals will adore the detailed drawings. The human characters have very little depth, but for those who love seeing a mean-spirited man get what’s due, this is a cathartic read.

  1. Harry Gratwick (2010, June 15). ‘The Tragedy of the Royal Tar: Maine’s 1836 Circus Steamboat Disaster.’ The Working Waterfront Archives.

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