Mention the 1836 wreck of the Royal Tar to some islanders and you’ll hear some very amazing tales. Some will tell you about rumors of an elephant arriving on the beach, or serpents seen slithering on various islands way back when. You might even be told that there are some places where people still won’t fish, ever since the Royal Tar’s boiler blew and the ship went up in flames, off Vinalhaven.

Why elephants and serpents? That’s because on that fateful night when the ship went down, the steamship was carrying a cargo of circus animals. While some people on board ship were rescued, all of the animals were lost at sea.

This month the Royal Tar is a hot topic on 10 of Maine’s islands, as the Island Readers & Writers Program brings children’s book author and illustrator Chris Van Dusen of Camden, and storyteller Judith Jerome, who is artistic director of the Stonington Opera House, to island classrooms.

Van Dusen will be reading his new book, The Circus Ship (Candlewick Press, $16.99), and talking about how the true story of the tragedy inspired him to imagine a story with another, and much happier ending. In Van Dusen’s book, islanders are initially alarmed to see lions and tigers and more in their midst, until the tiger rescues a child from a burning shed.

Jerome will be providing lively programming about the true story of the wreck and about island life during the days of steamship commerce. She has prepared one presentation for younger children and another for older students and community members.

“Several of our islands claim a relationship to that particular historical event,” said Jan Coates, founder of the Island Readers & Writer’s organization. “That’s why we’re so excited to use the publication of Chris Van Dusen’s book as the occasion to open up discussion not only about the creative process that occurs when a writer creates a story but also about the islanders’ own history and legends relative to the Royal Tar.”

A former educational administrator, Coates owned Port In A Storm Bookstore in Somesville and Portside Bookshop in Bernard. Both of those stores are now closed, but their “mission of building communities of readers” continues in the Island Readers & Writers Program, Coates said.

And “communities” is the key word here. In fact, it takes more than the students and teachers to make this island-hopping celebration of books and reading a success. Not only will island schools, libraries, and historical societies contribute materials and some presentations to enriching this program, but some islanders will be hosting the visitors in their homes overnight. Some communities will also hold potluck suppers and other events when the visitors are in their midst.

Coates said the focus on the story of the Royal Tar will not be confined to the days when Van Dusen and Jerome are on each island. She has worked with teachers to help students prepare for the visits in a variety of ways. In some cases, children will be working to create their own endings for the story of the Royal Tar. Many students will be producing and exhibiting artwork inspired by the story. And one group of students will be writing and singing a song about the ship.

All of this is an outgrowth of a program Coates started four years ago when she brought author Toni Buzzeo to Mt. Desert Island, Swan’s Island, and Frenchboro. In ensuing years, 14 writers and illustrators have participated in the island visits. This year the program is more ambitious than ever with Van Dusen and Jerome visiting 10 islands.

Van Dusen said he is both honored and excited to be chosen to visit island children this year. “One of the things I’m going to stress is that it’s OK to take a true story and change it around to make a new story from it. We will talk about the true story and about what the circus was like in the 1830s. I want to show kids that history can be amazing-and this is their own history, too!”

Told with humor and in rhyme, The Circus Ship is illustrated with Van Dusen’s trademark whimsy. But those who know something about real life on the islands in the 1830s will also note that Van Dusen worked hard to capture in his illustrations accurate details of architecture, fashion, and even the shape of clothespins that would have been used in 1836. Even his choice of circus animals reflects those that were commonly in circuses at that time. He eschewed adding clowns or acrobats because this would not have been historically accurate.

The Circus Ship is the ideal book to bring excitement about reading and island history into the classroom and the community,” Coates said. “I’m just thrilled to know that this book will open up the experience to the community in a greater way than we have done in the past.”

The Island Readers & Writers tour will travel to the following islands: North Haven on October 5; Vinalhaven on October 6; Isle au Haut on October 7; Deer Isle and Stonington on October 8; Frenchboro on October 9; Mt. Desert Island on October 10; Swan’s Island on October 13; Islesford on October 14; Islesboro on October 15; and Matinicus on October 16.