Camden author Chris Van Dusen got the idea for his latest children’s book while reading the website of the Harvard University Center for the Environment.

It’s perhaps not the first place you’d expect the author of the picture books “Down to the Sea with Mr. Magee” and “King Hugo’s Huge Ego” to find inspiration.

But what caught Van Dusen’s imagination was a couple sentences about the construction of wind turbines on Vinalhaven island in 2009. One of the giant trucks carrying turbine parts slipped off the pavement, clogging summertime traffic on the island’s only north-south road. Traffic backed up in both directions as workers estimated it would take hours to move the massive truck using a crane. But instead of just sitting there, fuming about the appointments or ferries they were going to miss, the islanders started swapping cars. People heading north took cars stuck north of the truck, and visa versa.

“It just seemed to me to be such a display of trust and a very ingenious way to handle the situation,” said Van Dusen, 62. “It seemed like something that could only happen on an island. I thought it might really resonate with kids, especially today, about how we can all work together to get past roadblocks, literally.”

Van Dusen turned the car-swapping incident into a rhyming children’s book called “Big Truck, Little Island” (Candlewick Press), which went on sale in early May.

“Big Truck, Little Island” Copyright © 2022 by Chris Van Dusen. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, Mass.

It’s the 11th picture book Van Dusen has written and illustrated, and the second to be based on events tied to Vinalhaven. His 2009 book “The Circus Ship” was about a boat full of animals who end up on a Maine island after a shipwreck. That book was based on the sinking of the Royal Tar, a steamboat carrying passengers and circus animals that burst into flames off Vinalhaven in 1836. Most of the animals died though some people say a few swam to nearby islands.


As with “The Circus Ship,” Van Dusen took the basic idea for “Big Truck, Little Island” from something he’d read, but tweaked it to make it more relatable and interesting to young readers. The truck in his story is not carrying a wind turbine, for instance. But the kid-friendly cargo Van Dusen came up with is a surprise, not revealed until the book’s end.

Van Dusen had come across the article on the Harvard Center for the Environment because he had heard, only vaguely, about an accident involving a truck carrying wind turbine parts and wanted to find out more. When he saw the few details of the accident in that article, he decided to call people on Vinalhaven to find out more. It wasn’t written up in any newspapers, as far as Van Dusen could tell.

He got the impression, from talking to some islanders, that this was no big deal. People on the island trust each other, they leave their keys in their cars and their doors unlocked. They often have to be creative in finding ways to cope with daily life on an island.

For more specifics, he called Philip Conkling, who has a home on Vinalhaven and was co-founder of Maine’s Island Institute. He was also the source of the information that appeared in the article Van Dusen read.

Conkling described to Van Dusen the truck, which was so long that the section over the rear axle had to have its own steering wheel and driver. About a mile and a half from the harbor, while coming around a curve, a wheel slipped off the road and stranded it. The turbines were being built to take advantage of off-shore winds and generate electricity for people on Vinalhaven and North Haven, Conkling said.

Chris Van Dusen, a children’s author and illustrator, flips through the pages of his new book “Big Truck, Little Island”, based on an accident on Vinalhaven. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The only way to move the truck was to get the giant crane being used in the wind turbine construction project and bring it to where the truck was stuck, which was not a quick process, Conkling said. It was August, a time of year when there are perhaps as many as 4,000 people on the island.


At some point, there were about 20 cars lined up on either side of the truck, Conkling said. Some drivers had appointments on the mainland and were trying to catch the ferry, others had cars full of groceries growing warmer by the minute.

“The head of the construction company figured that everybody was going to be upset. But instead, people got out of their cars and said, ‘You can take my car to the ferry if I can take yours to my house. We can trade later,'” said Conkling. “It was a real island culture moment.”

Van Dusen, who grew up a fan of Dr. Seuss and his clever rhymes, created a series of situations for the various stalled cars, with kids in each who needed to be somewhere else.

“Pete had a project to finish with Paul – a working volcano, with lava and all! And Sue had to be at the dog wash with Bunk – her sheepdog who’d tried to make friends with a skunk.”

In the real traffic jam, there was no evidence that kids in the cars came up with the swapping solution, but in Van Dusen’s book, they do.

“Barry said ‘Listen, let’s all exchange cars. We’ll borrow yours, and then you borrow ours. I’ll switch with Pete and Meg swaps with Sue, and later we’ll trade our cars back when we’re through.'”


A page from “Big Truck, Little Island” shows people stuck in their cars, thinking about all the places they have to be. “Big Truck, Little Island” Copyright © 2022 by Chris Van Dusen. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, Mass.

Having a well-known children’s author write two books with strong Vinalhaven ties in recent years is certainly a “boon” for the island, said Scott Candage, librarian at the Vinalhaven Public Library. Candage has “Big Truck, Little Island” on order for the library and figures interest in it will be strong. Van Dusen’s “The Circus Ship” is still drawing attention to the island more than a decade after it came out, Candage said. A Belfast elementary school class is planning to visit the library in June to learn more about the actual shipwreck.

Because Van Dusen is not from the island, he was able to look at the events that inspired “Big Truck, Little Island” in a way most islanders might not, Candage said, noting that car-swapping “may be something that most people out here would just take for granted.”

Van Dusen, though, is not the first children’s author to bring attention to Vinalhaven, Candage said. Margaret Wise Brown, author of the children’s classics “Goodnight Moon” and “The Runaway Bunny,” summered there for 14 years until her death in 1952 and drew inspiration for her books from her time on the island.


Van Dusen was born in Portland and lived in Maine until he was about 5, when his father, a mechanical engineer, was transferred and the family moved to the central Massachusetts town of Harvard. He was one of five boys in the family, and he remembers his first drawings came on rainy days.

“We’d be moping around and my mother would give us paper and say, ‘Why don’t you guys draw pictures?'” remembered Van Dusen. “And we’d draw all afternoon.”


As his drawing skills improved, Van Dusen thought he’d like to be a comic strip artist. He was a big fan of Peanuts and B.C. especially. He spent hours creating characters. Then, as he got older, he wanted to be a painter, influenced by the works of Edward Hopper, Fairfield Porter and others. He studied art at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth. He thought about becoming a professor of painting, but only applied to one grad school and didn’t get in.

Chris Van Dusen at work in his home studio. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

He took a job as assistant art director at a now-defunct magazine for teens based in Massachusetts where he did cartoons and illustrations. He still had family in Maine and so when he heard about a job for an artist at a Midcoast greeting card company, around 1985, he applied. He got the job and moved to the Camden area. A few years later, the company moved to New Jersey, but Van Dusen didn’t want to move. He had met his wife, Lori, in Maine and felt like his future was here.

So Van Dusen started freelancing, doing work for advertising companies and magazines, including Down East. At one point he illustrated swing-set directions for the Maine company Cedar Works. Years later, he bought one of the company’s play structures and had to follow his own drawings in putting it together for his two sons. Luckily, the drawings made sense to him.

Van Dusen was making a living doing illustrations and cartoons, including in national kids magazines and newspapers like The New York Times and Wall Street Journal. He had some artist friends who had started writing and illustrating children’s books, and he thought that sounded like fun.

Then one day, he just happened to get a strange image in his head, of a man and his dog in a boat that was stuck in a treetop. How did the man get there, he wondered? He decided that might be the basis of a book, but he had no idea how to find an agent or get it published. About nine years later, his book “Down to the Sea with Mr. Magee” was released by Chronicle Books, in 2000. The book is a gentle tale of a man and his dog out for a leisurely day in a boat when a “bored little whale” nudges the boat to say hello and sends them flying high.

Van Dusen followed that up with “A Camping Spree with Mr. Magee” and later “Learning to Ski with Mr. Magee.” He’s also written a series of “If I Built” books in which the child/narrator lets his imagination run wild: “If I Built a Car,” “If I Built a House” and “If I Built a School.” “If I Built a Car” won the 2006 E.B. White Read-Aloud Award presented by the Association of Booksellers for Children.


Besides writing 11 books, which he’s illustrated himself, he’s also illustrated 18 for other authors. He’s worked with author Kate DiCamillo on the Mercy Watson series, about an inquisitive and enthusiastic pig.

Van Dusen’s books often feature mid-century design elements, especially on cars and furniture. It’s partly because he grew up in the ’60s and partly because he finds the older cars a lot more fun to draw. His most mid-century book, in terms of style, is probably “Randy Riley’s Really Big Hit,” which features a giant robot based on the old science-fiction movies from the ’50s Van Dusen grew up watching on TV.

Van Dusen creates images for his books with gouache (rhymes with squash, as his website points out), a water-based paint. He describes his whimsical style as the creation of “painterly cartoons.” The retro style of his art may be one reason why his books appeal to grown-ups too, because they remind them of their own childhoods, just as they remind Van Dusen of his.

“Big Truck, Little Island” went on sale May 3 and the following week it was listed as the best-selling hardcover fiction book at Longfellow Books in Portland. On May 14, Longfellow Books hosted a book event featuring Van Dusen at Congress Square Park in Portland. Actors from Portland Stage read from the book, and Van Dusen signed copies.

Ari Gersen, owner of Longfellow Books, said Van Dusen’s books “capture the spirit” of Maine and help fuel the imaginations of kids and adults.

“His books are whimsical, colorful and imaginative,” said Gersen. “I think Chris has this big kid inside of him. The joy he had in creating these books really comes through.”

A page from “Big Truck, Little Island.” The book is about a truck mishap on Vinalhaven that prompted islanders to switch cars with their neighbors rather to stay stuck in traffic. “Big Truck, Little Island” Copyright © 2022 by Chris Van Dusen. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, Mass.

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