Van Dusen Excited for Black Hills Event

Chris Van Dusen will be featured at the 2017 South Dakota Festival of Books in Rapid City and Deadwood Sept. 21-24. Visit his author page for scheduling information.

Veteran Illustrator & Kate DiCamillo Collaborator Appearing in Deadwood, Rapid City

By Ryan Woodard

Working with an author like Kate DiCamillo makes Chris Van Dusen's job easy.

The brilliant Newbery Medal-winning author paints vivid pictures with her poignant, imaginative storytelling. All that's left is filling in the blanks. Well, sort of. A writer like DiCamillo doesn't leave holes in her stories. But she does leave room for illustrations.

That's where Van Dusen comes in.

"It was pretty incredible to get paired up with Kate for those books because I had three books out on my own before I received a call from Candlewick to illustrate the Mercy Watson series."

The 2017 Young Readers Illustrator is excited to share his experience as a visual artist with Young Readers across the state at the 2017 South Dakota Festival of Books.

"I'm excited to come out there because I've never been to that part of the country," he said. "I'm hoping to come out a few days early."

2017 Young Readers Illustrator Chris Van Dusen appears at a reading event. 

A Past Festival of Books Favorite

South Dakota's Young Readers are familiar with his partner in the Mercy Watson series, as Kate DiCamillo was featured as the 2014 One Book author for "The Miraculous Adventures of Edward Tulane."

Their joint effort, "Adventures on Deckawoo Drive: Volumes 1-3," is the common read for the 2017 Festival of Books. Young readers get a three-for-one deal, as "Adventures" includes three Mercy Watson books in one – "Leroy Ninker Saddles Up," "Francine Poulet Meets the Ghost Raccoon," and "Where Are You Going, Baby Lincoln?"

In the Mercy Watson series, characters like animal control officer Francine Poulet and cowboy Leroy Ninker wrangle "porcine wonder" Mercy Watson on the familiar streets of Deckawoo Drive.

Van Dusen said he "really had fun" illustrating the series, which included about 50 illustrations per book, and is excited to discuss it with young readers and their parents at the 2017 Deadwood event. DiCamillo will send a video greeting to the students.

Kate DiCamillo at the 2014 Young Readers Festival of Books in Sioux Falls. Photo credit: Emily Spartz/Sioux Falls Argus Leader

Prolific Partnership

Van Dusen and DiCamillo worked together before they met in person. As is common in the publishing house industry, DiCamillo wrote the manuscript and Van Dusen received it in the mail along with instructions on where his illustrations were needed.

"Kate sort of left it up to me as to how the characters should look," he said. "I took clues from names she gave (the characters)."

If a name sounded Italian, Van Dusen made the character appear Italian. Like a reader wrapped up in an intriguing novel, Van Dusen was left to imagine how the characters looked. Then he simply transferred those thoughts to pen and paper.

Van Dusen's work was spot on, save for the types of revisions that could be expected when two people's imaginations are joined.

"She really didn't change too much. One big change was when I first sketched the characters. I envisioned Mercy to be a cute piglet with cute long ears. Kate liked them but she said, 'actually, Mercy is this big, full-grown fat pig," he explained.

Diminutive in stature but a giant in the publishing industry, DiCamillo intimidated Van Dusen prior to their first official meeting. However, as those who met the friendly DiCamillo at 2014 Young Readers events in Sioux Falls and Brookings can attest, she's a people person.

"It was funny because I was a little nervous to meet her because she's so big in the children's book world," he said. It didn't take long for him to feel at ease. "She's the nicest person. She's funny, she's very easygoing, and we just hit it off. We still keep in touch."

Magazines to Kids' Books

Van Dusen was a seasoned illustrator by the time he was called upon to illustrate DiCamillo's books.

He developed his artistic talents as a child, when he and his brothers would spend hours drawing pictures – his specialty was aliens, robots, and monsters. He has always been inspired by the musical rhythm of Dr. Seuss' words and the meticulous detail of Robert McCloskey's illustrations.

Van Dusen credits his career to persistence.

"I go around to schools and sometimes meet with really young kids. I say, 'raise your hand if you like to draw.' Almost all hands go up. So, all kids really like drawing," he said. "It's the ones that keep with it that go on to be professional artists or illustrators."

"A lot of classmates could draw just as well as I do. Others quit. I kept at it."

In addition to books, Van Dusen's illustrations have been published in magazines and printed on T-shirts and greeting cards. He started his career as a magazine illustrator. He discovered children's illustrations were his favorite, which led to the next logical step in his career path.

"It seemed like a natural transition to go into kids' books," he said. "I noticed a lot of my peers were doing kids' books."

He wrote and illustrated three children's books on his own prior to the Mercy Watson series.

Chris Van Dusen is the 2017 Young Readers Illustrator.

Sketches to Painting

So how does Van Dusen bring to life expressive characters like determined animal control officer Francine Poulet, fun-loving cowboy Leroy Ninker and his apprehensive horse, Maybelline?

They look like sketches, which they are, originally. But the Mercy Watson illustrations are actually paintings. Van Dusen begins by sketching the images and making sure they are "just right." Then he paints them using an opaque watercolor called gouache paint to produce the final product he submits to the publisher.

It all starts with drawing, which is why Van Dusen advises aspiring artists to practice drawing for many, many hours before attempting other types of art. Drawing at a "really high level" is a prerequisite for other forms of art such as painting.

Van Dusen is excited to share these kinds of tidbits of advice at the 2017 Deadwood event.

"I do like going to schools and festivals and meeting kids," he said. He enjoys interacting with kids, which is a stark contrast to the solitary days he spends at his studio creating the artwork they so enjoy.

It's all worth it when he sees their reaction at his book event appearances.

"I realize this is why I do this - because of these kids," he said.

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For more information about the 2017 South Dakota Festival of Books, please download your free copy of the 2017 Festival Guide!

Download a free copy of the 2017 South Dakota Festival of Books Guide.