The Hippo


May 28, 2020








Storytime with Chris Van Dusen

Where: Gibson’s Bookstore, 45 S. Main St., Concord,, 224-0562
When: Saturday, July 29, at 11 a.m.

A monster and a message
New kids’ book an adventure in acceptance

By Kelly Sennott

 Maine author and illustrator Chris Van Dusen has loved drawing since he was a kid, when his preferred subjects were aliens, robots and monsters.

So it’s fitting that his latest book, Hattie & Hudson, published in May by Candlewick Press, features a gigantic sea beast that resembles a mix between the Loch Ness Monster, an elasmosaurus (water dinosaur) and a Labrador retriever (a breed he says has “the most expressive eyes”). Some early sketches were too goofy, some too scary. But more important than the illustrations is the story behind them.
“It’s a book about not judging by appearances,” said Van Dusen, who reads the book at Gibson’s Bookstore Saturday, July 29, at 11 a.m. 
Hattie & Hudson follows the unlikely friendship between a girl, Hattie, and the town’s lake monster, Hudson, who’s stirred by her singing and lured to the surface for the first time in decades. The townspeople are terrified of Hudson, so Hattie only visits in the middle of the night — until the two decide to concoct a plan in hopes of showing everyone his true, kind nature.
Van Dusen said the location was inspired by the lake he spent summers on as a kid in southwestern Maine, where his family swam, boated, water skied and snorkeled, and where he always imagined a monster lurked deep beneath the surface. He also referenced the lake near his home in Camden, Maine, to create the underwater paintings.
“I love painting underwater scenes,” he said. “Everybody thinks underwater is blue because that’s what they see when they see a lake, but if you’re snorkeling, you can see a lot of the lakes in Maine or northern New England have this olive-y green color.”
Many readers have commented the one in Hattie & Hudson resembles Lake Winnipesaukee. Others have told him the story’s message — on acceptance and sticking up for those who are different — is timely, considering the recent travel ban.
Van Dusen’s the author and illustrator of many, children’s books, including The Circus Ship and Randy Riley’s Really Big Hit; some of his best-known titles are the ones he illustrated for the Mercy Watson series with author Kate DiCamillo.
“When I write a book, my criteria is very simple. I just think to myself, is this a book I would have enjoyed when I was 6 years old? … Does it have the adventures and the characters that would have sparked my imagination?” he said. “I can’t remember what I had for dinner last night, but … I have this deep recollection of things from my childhood, and that helps when I’m writing children’s books.”
The paintings are done in gouache and rendered tightly with detail. One illustration, when the monster emerges from the water a second time, has no words at all, requiring the reader to tip the book vertically. This page used to have text, until he and his editor decided it was more dramatic without. The first draft of this book was also written in verse, like all his others.
“I tried to work in the rhyme, but it seemed forced. I finally realized it was the tone of the story. All my other books are much more humorous, and this isn’t quite as funny,” he said. “I was trying to force a whimsical rhyme on a book that really wanted to be taken more seriously.”
Hattie & Hudson is also his first picture book with a female protagonist. This is mostly due to something he heard when he first began writing — that girls will read books with boy protagonists, but boys are more reluctant to read those with girl protagonists. 
“I’m not sure that’s 100 percent true, but I think there is some truth to it. When I grew up, you didn’t find boys reading Nancy Drew. They were reading The Hardy Boys,” Van Dusen said. “It did sort of scare me a little bit. I didn’t want to lose half the population [of readers].”
But during school visits, kids kept asking him, where are the girls in his books? And so finally, he created this brave little girl named Hattie. Since its release, he’s seen many young boys at signings, which he’s happy to see.
“I’m proud of this story,” he said. “I think it’s sort of an adventure with a really nice message.” 

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