Essay on Children's Book Author and Illustrator Chris Van Allsburg

When I was younger, I loved to think. I was a “what if…” sort of child. What if woke up and no one could remember me? What if animals could talk? What if I played a board game and what if what happened in the board game actually happened to me in real life? Actually, the last question wasn’t mine; it belongs to children’s book author and illustrator Chris Van Allsburg. As a child, though, I gravitated to Van Allsburg’s books because he wrote about the “what if” questions that had already invaded my mind. He encouraged me to wonder about magic through his book The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, and in Jumanji he showed me the possibility of a board game gone all-to-real. His wildly imaginative narratives combined with his artistically technical illustrations made the “what if” questions in his book feel so real and possible. One of Van Allsburg’s best qualities as a picture book creator is his ability to make his readers think.

Van Allsburg was born in 1949 and grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His favorite book as a child was Harold and the Purple Crayon. He enjoyed art and drawing as a young child, but when he entered middle school Van Allsburg found that being a male artist was not a coveted social position. Throughout middle and high school Van Allsburg’s artistic interests waned while he explored more mathematical and athletic education experiences. However, Van Allsburg’s interest in art resurfaced in a foretelling encounter. According to Van Allsburg’s official website, throughout a unique university admissions interview Van Allsburg wittily convinced the college representative to admit him to the Architecture and Design school based upon a half-believable story of private art study and an astutely bluffed art critique. Thus, while Van Allsburg was admitted to the Michigan art school under somewhat false pretenses, it was throughout this meeting that Van Allsburg’s proclivity for storytelling emerged.

Upon graduating from Michigan he:
Entered the Rhode Island School of Design where he earned his masters degree in fine art.
Van Allsburg’s expanded from sculpture to include drawing.
Made his living as a sculptor while teaching at the School of Design.
Taught a course titled “Design your Own Country”.
Challenged his students to create posters, postage stamps, and other items to document the existence of a mythical country.

Van Allsburg’s entrance into the children’s literature market came as a result of his wife’s prodding and support. His wife, who was then an elementary school teacher, felt that Van Allsburg could create illustrations better than many she viewed in children’s picture books. Troughout a sabbatical from teaching, Van Allsburg, created his first written and illustrated book in 1979 titled The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, which received recognition as a Caldecott Honor book. Houghton Mifflin in Boston, MA, published his first and every subsequent book. To date, Van Allsburg has written and self-illustrated fifteen children’s books. He has also illustrated three books written by Mark Helprin, published under Houghton and Viking. Van Allsburg has received many honors and awards for his books, including two Caldecott Medals for his work in Jumanji (1982) and his best-known title The Polar Express (1986). Van Allsburg’s dedication to imaginative storylines and finessed drawings has made illustrating and writing children’s books a very profitable profession (Hedblad 213).

Due to Van Allsburg’s prolific body of children’s literature, it was laborious to choose only five titles to discuss. Van Allsburg has continuously challenged himself to create original picture books. He has explored many drawing mediums to construct his illustrations in both color and black-and-white. He has also produced a body of work that showcases a variety of narrative approaches. While some of his texts have been noted to lack elements of well-written text or consist of moralized storylines, his illustrations are always dynamic (Hedblad 218). Through my text set selections I intend to demonstrate the range in Van Allsburg’s book structure, artistic style, and narrative form.

In his stories Van Allsburg embraces the mystery of life. His use of light and shadows creates suspenseful moods and perpetuates feelings of danger and uncertainty. Van Allsburg’s use of black and white illustrations also contributes to the mysteriousness of his books. According to the something About the Author series, “a dominant message in Van Allsburg’s work in not that good and bad things can happen in life, but rather that strange things occur”. Van Allsburg’s different uses of perspective allow his readers to view events from places that aren’t very probable in real life. Many of his illustrations give the reader a bird’s eye view, such as in the final illustration in Bad Day at Riverbend, or from seemingly hidden vantage points, demonstrated in many Jumanji illustrations.

The topics in Van Allsburg’s books tend to challenge readers instead of comforting them. Van Allsburg’s exceptionally meticulous and lifelike pictures temper his fantasy driven storylines to create a heightened question of reality. Van Allsburg has admitted to taking interest in things that seemingly do not belong, like rhinos in living rooms (Jumanji) and sailboats stuck high on dry land (The Wreck of the Zephyr). In addition, Van Allsburg’s books provoke thought by forcing the reader to make connections between the text and the illustrations to give his books deeper meaning. In The Stranger and Mysteries of Harris Burdick Van Allsburg relies on the reader to make integral connections between the text and illustrations to answer the puzzles proposed by the text. Van Allsburg states that he “likes the idea of withholding something, both in drawings and writing” and it is this sense of the missing connection that encourages many young readers to ponder his stories (Hedblad 219). The puzzling and mystifying nature of Van Allsburg’s works encourage many teachers to use his books as read-aloud in order to promote active class discussions.

Houghton published Jumanji, Van Allsburg’s second picture book, in 1981. The inspiration for this story was Van Allsburg’s own disappointment with playing board games as a child. Van Allsburg uses a Conte pencil to create black and white illustrations with deep tonal contrasts, which lend to the suspense of the plot. During the climax of the book, the female protagonist is apparently disappearing into a shadowy light fog as the text reads, “She dropped the dice from her hands. One six, then another. Judy grabbed her piece and slammed it to the board. ‘JUMANJI,’ she yelled, as loud as she could.” By coupling this text with the ambiguous picture with text crafted to delay time (One six, then another) and capitalized text, readers become more involved with the suspense of the story. The final illustration of Jumanji shows two children running through a park with a box resembling a board game. Based upon this text, potential lesson plans for upper intermediate grades include creating personal board games and continuing the story of what happens to the children in the park.

Mysteries of Harris Burdick, published in 1984 as Van Allsburg’s fifth book, is immersed in mystery. This book represents a newer genre of picture books, the wordless picture book. In the introduction to this book Van Allsburg writes about an illustrator who brings in 14 drawings to show an editor and then disappears without a trace. Thus, Mysteries of Harris Burdick contains 14 unrelated illustrations, each accompanied on a facing page with one to two lines of text that serve as a caption to the illustration. The lack of text suggests how much more powerful images may be when they aren’t biased by narrative (Heron 29). Potential lesson plans for this story could be to have children in the class choose an illustration and caption. Then, write a story that incorporates the ideas in the picture and the provided caption. I can envision this plan to work with children from upper elementary grades through high school.

Van Allsburg’s The Z was Zapped, an alphabet book that stars the alphabet as the protagonists of the book, was published in 1987. Once again, Van Allsburg created a book deep with mystery and a bit of horror. In this alphabet book each letter mysteriously disappears as an act in a play. Van Allsburg composes the book so that the picture precedes the corresponding text. This format would allow a primary grade teacher to work on prediction reading cues. Students could also create their own alphabet book or create a play based upon the alphabet.

Bad Day at Riverbend was published in 1995. This is a clever and entertaining book that can be appreciated in younger elementary grades, perhaps even preschool. Bad Day at Riverbed poses the question, “What happens inside of a book when it’s closed?” While the illustrations appear bland at first, the imagination behind this book propels this story. Greasy, colored squiggles attack a black-lined town and its inhabitants. As the squiggles take over the illustrations, Van Allsburg writes, “When he turned his horse back toward town, he saw the same bright light in the sky that he’d seen in the morning. It was just beyond the horizon, right over Riverbed. It didn’t last long.” Van Allsburg never explains the bright light in his book; however, in the final black outline illustration, there is a life-like drawing of a hand using a crayon to color in the outlines of cowboys. Van Allsburg leaves it to the reader to draw the connection between the plot in the text and the plot in the illustrations. Perhaps if a teacher read this book aloud to an 4th or 5th grade class, it could serve as a springboard for writing a story within a story narrative.

Van Allsburg explained his own infatuation with children’s literature in his 1982 Caldecott Medal acceptance speech, “It is a unique medium that allows an artist-author to deal with the passage of time, the unfolding of events…the opportunity to create a small world between two pieces of cardboard, where time exists yet stands still…” (Van Allsburg 382). As a child and an adult, Van Allsburg’s books have captivated my mind, helping me to create my own literary world of thought to which I could retreat.

Hedblad, Alan Something About the Author: Chris Van Allsburg. Vol. 105 p. 213-219. 1999
Heron, Kim. “Van Allsburg Express” The New York Times Magazine. . p. 12—15, 24, 28-29. 24 December 1989
Stan, Susua. “Conversations Chris Van Allsburg.” The Five Owls. p. 86, July/August 1988
Tarlow, Lois “Alternative Space: Chris Van Allsburg.” Art New England. p. 12-13, 25. December 1984
Van Allsburg, Chris “Caldecott Medal Acceptance.” The Horn Book Magazine. P.380-387. August 1982