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Into the Mercy Watson Time Machine with Chris Van Dusen

On April 2nd the latest book in the Mercy Watson universe arrives: A Piglet Named Mercy. I spoke with illustrator Chris Van Dusen about the process of making the book.


Travis: Hi Chris! I’m happy to see that Mercy Watson is returning, this time in picture book form. Have you known for a while that Kate was writing a Mercy picture book, or did you suddenly receive the manuscript one day? Either way, what was your reaction?


Chris Van Dusen: I first heard about this book from someone at Candlewick Press. There was a rumor that Kate DiCamillo was writing a Mercy Watson picture book. I had nothing to do with it of course. It was all Kate‘s idea, and it’s a pretty brilliant one. With this picture book, Kate has introduced this crazy cast of characters to the youngest of readers, and now all age groups can enjoy Mercy’s adventures. I think the only thing left is a board book and an adult novel!

Travis: This book goes back in time to when Mercy was a piglet. How did you approach the illustrations knowing all the characters would be younger?

Chris Van Dusen: I knew that Mercy would be a cute, roly-poly piglet, but to be honest, I totally missed the fact that the rest of the cast should be younger, too. I originally sketched the human characters exactly as they appear in the other series. It wasn’t until I mentioned the story to my agent, Steve Malk, that I realized I had to change Mr. and Mrs. Watson as well. I remember Steve saying, “I can’t wait to see what the Watsons will look like younger.” So I subtly added sideburns to Mr. Watson and bangs to Mrs. Watson. They’re also a little thinner.


Travis: With a Mercy Watson picture book the illustrations will be more center stage than ever (such is the picture book form) I’m wondering if/how you felt the illustrations had to carry more of the storytelling load?

Chris Van Dusen: Yes, the story is pretty simple, in that wonderful Kate DiCamillo way, so I knew the illustrations would be more prominent. They’re a lot larger, too, because of the picture book format. In areas of dialogue, I tried to make the pictures as interesting as possible by varying the scale of the characters and the perspective of the composition. It’s something I do in all my picture books. I approach each illustration the way I imagine a film director approaches a shot. What’s the best, most interesting way to frame the action in the text? It can be challenging, but it’s the part of illustrating I enjoy the most.


Travis: How much of illustration is just amusing yourself? Any examples?

Chris Van Dusen: I love adding the little details to the Watsons home that define their characters. In the Mercy Watson series, you’ll notice there are a lot of pig themed knickknacks in their house, but this is pre-Mercy so they don’t appear here. They still have the checkerboard kitchen floor and the pink refrigerator, but no pig pictures yet. There is one little joke I added though. It’s at the front of the book. The text describes how Mr. and Mrs. Watson are ordinary people who do ordinary things. I tried to think of the most mundane tasks, like vacuuming and washing the car, which I pictured Mr. and Mrs. Watson doing on the second spread. Then you turn the page and it says something like, “One day, Mrs. Watson said to Mr. Watson…” so it’s obviously a different day, yet in the picture Mr. Watson is still washing the car and Mrs. Watson is still vacuuming- like they do it every day! It’s subtle, but I think it describes their rather boring life.

Travis: What snack puts you in peak creativity mode?

Chris Van Dusen: I don’t know if food triggers my creativity, but I can tell you that since I started illustrating these Mercy Watson stories, I love a good piece of hot buttered toast. It’s so good!

Travis: Thank you Chris!

Chris Van Dusen: Thanks so much!

About Travis Jonker

Travis Jonker is an elementary school librarian in Michigan. He writes reviews (and the occasional article or two) for School Library Journal and is a member of the 2014 Caldecott committee. You can email Travis at scopenotes@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter: @100scopenotes.


  1. Here’s to another happy resolution, topped off with a table filled with people enjoying some fine hot, buttered toast!