Chris Van Dusen draws Shakespeare eating ramen noodles as part of a 2018 Draw Off at Longfellow Books against fellow Maine author/illustrator Scott Nash. Van Dusen will participate in another Draw Off event, his first public event in more than a year due to the pandemic, July 17 at Congress Square Park. Contributed / Chris Van Dusen

Maine author/illustrators Chris Van Dusen and Ryan T. Higgins have not had an in-person appearance in more than a year due to the pandemic, but an event planned for this weekend will help them reengage with audiences while testing their artistic creativity.

On July 17, Van Dusen, a Camden resident, will face off against author/illustrator and Kittery native Ryan T. Higgins in a Draw Off, an event sponsored by Longfellow Books, Friends of Congress Square Park and Portland Stage Company. The two authors will go head-to-head by drawing some of their book characters and audience requests.

“A big part of my job is hanging out with kids during school visits or bookstore events,” Higgins said. “But this past year has had us all stuck at home and I haven’t been able to do any of that stuff. The Draw Off with Chris will be a great way to reconnect with our audiences.”

The event will also include a book signing and Portland Stage performances of Van Dusen’s “Hattie & Hudson” and Higgins’ “We Will Rock Our Classmates.”

“It’s a fun event and we usually have a good turnout,” Van Dusen said of Longfellow Books’ Draw Off events, which he has participated in over the years with Scott Nash, a popular and prolific author/illustrator who lives on Peaks Island. “It’s a nice way to connect with the kids and see them get excited about books.”

Friends of Congress Square Park Executive Director C.J. Opperthauser is excited for the potential the event has to introduce the park to some of the area’s youngest residents.

“We’ve tried various children’s programming, and it hasn’t stuck,” he said. “We don’t have a lot planned for this year, so I thought this was a great opportunity to bring some family-friendly programming into the park.”

Other events in the park this summer include musical performances, film screenings, live theater, chess, arts and crafts, tai chi or other exercises.

The Draw Offs, Van Dusen said, always bring unexpected suggestions from the audience, such as at Longfellow Books’ Independent Bookstore Day in April 2018, when he and Nash were asked to draw an astronaut playing with Legos on the moon and a dog swimming underwater chasing a tennis ball with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, or an event years ago in Bangor when he was asked to draw his worst nightmare. He drew a picture of himself receiving his AARP card.

“You aren’t going to see any masterpieces, but they are fun,” he said.

Ari Gersen, owner of Longfellow Books, said the Draw Off events have long been a popular children’s program at the bookstore.

“It’s fun to see the author/illustrators try to interpret (the suggestions from kids) and see what they do with it,” he said.

Those in-person events are what Higgins and Van Dusen have missed the most over the last year. Higgins said although the pandemic canceled several events he had booked and caused some shipping delays for publications he was working on, he was still able to go to his studio “every day and make books.”

Van Dusen said while the pandemic didn’t impact his work too much, like Higgins he still had projects to work on and deadlines to meet.

Both authors have new books coming out in the next year. Higgins has two hitting shelves in September: “Thanks for Nothing,” a Thanksgiving book about how his popular bear character Bruce is not thankful for anything, and “Norman Didn’t Do It.” The book, inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” introduces readers to Norman, a porcupine whose best friend is a tree, who gets jealous when another tree starts growing nearby. Both are published by Disney Hyperion.

Van Dusen’s “Big Truck, Little Island,” published by Candlewick Press, is due to come out in May 2022. The book, based on a true incident  on Vinalhaven a dozen years ago, is “a story about friendship, trust, cooperation and island problem-solving.”

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