The work of Chris Van Allsburg spans nearly 30 years with countless credits to date. The images he creates are haunting in their depiction of a world both familiar and magical. Part of the thrill of reading a Chris Van Allsburg book is that the illustrations appear so commonplace and the story so direct and easily accessible, and then there’s a turn. We see a board game become a fight for survival, and the kitchen—complete with cereal bowls and cupboards—now full of monkeys. A lost dog leads to enhancement, transformation, and a final reveal. A real train in real snow brings a boy the promise of Christmas and solidifies the magic of the season. It’s the addition of the impossible to the very ordinary that jars the reader into feeling taken out of one reality and placed just off to the left.
In these books, the smallest detail or form of an illustration can create a sharp and unsettling tone. The snake in the book Jumanji, for instance, sits on a mantel and the creature almost becomes part of the decorating scheme—echoing the pattern on the living room chair—but remains deadly. The snake is a snake, but the living room is still a living room, and the juxtaposition is what makes it true art.
The storytelling serves the pictures and vice versa. The end of Jumanji has us observe another pair of children running off with the board game, and the two children having barely escaped with their lives witnessing the incoming of certain danger. This is the mark of a Chris Van Allsburg story; that of the absence of safety and comfort within the context of illustrations both stark and complex. [Books Tell You Why]
Examining the Work of Chris Van Allsburg
“The idea of the extraordinary happening in the context of the ordinary is what’s fascinating to me.”-Chris Van Allsburg
In the work of Chris Van Allsburg, his books often depict fantastic, uncontrolled events and utilize sometimes brutal irony. Van Allsburg breaks out of the comfortable world of children literature to explore the darker side of human nature. For example, his book The Sweetest Fig is about a selfish man who is suddenly given the opportunity to make his wildest dreams come true. His greed is eventually his downfall. This is not an unusual moral for a story in children books, but Van Allsburg’s chilling characterization of the man brings a frightening tone to the narrative. The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, a collection of images on one side, and one sentence on the other (meant to be ‘recovered pages’ of longer books) continues the themes of darker undertones and was the inspiration for the short story “The House on Maple Street” by author Stephen King, in his collection Nightmares & Dreamscapes (as his author’s note expands upon). The Wretched Stone, in which a ship’s crew is mesmerized and corrupted by the titular rock, is an allegorical tale about the negative impact of television.[citation]
Other literary themes include dreams, the environment, and items with lives of their own (like the board games in Jumanji and Zathura, two books which are almost the same story, with the only difference being the theme of the board game and the events which are caused by playing).
Many books feature Fritz, a Bull Terrier that is based on a real-life dog owned by Chris Van Allsburg’s brother-in-law. He appears in many of the books and even on his website, sometimes as a real dog, or a toy, or other things as a tribute to the dog’s life.
Van Allsburg’s drawings are particularly notable for their use of perspective. In many cases, the illustrations are drawn from a child’s eye height. This viewpoint likely appeals to children because it conveys the world as they see it. It may also appeal to adults because they may (unconsciously) perceive the world as they did when they were children.
One of my favorite Allsburg interviews come from the School Library Journal which you can read here.
“You can’t go broke overestimating the intelligence of children” – Chris Van Allsburg and the Eric Carle Honors of 2013
From the Author’s website:
Which comes first the story or the pictures?
I always write the story, or at least an outline, before I start sketching ideas for pictures. Once I start the final art, the story has been written (and re-written), and changes very little after that.
Why are some of your books in black and white and the others in color?
I did not study painting or drawing when I was in college learning about art. I studied sculpture. I drew pictures of the sculptures I planned to make, and I took a few required drawing classes. When I was 29 years old and wrote my first book, making pictures with a charcoal pencil was all I really knew how to do. I didn’t feel bad that my pictures were not in color because I like black and white pictures, as well as black and white photographs and movies.
As time went by, I became more interested in picture making and taught myself to use different material to make color pictures. Materials like dry and oil pastels, craypas, crayons, colored pencils, and paint. Now I decide if a book should be black and white or color as a result of a how I imagine the story while I am thinking about it. When I tell myself a story, I see it in my imagination, like a short movie. Sometimes I see the stories in black and white and sometimes I see the stories in color. I’m not sure why.
As a child, growing up in the Midwest, I used to draw pictures of cars, cartoon characters, and very detailed plans for tornado shelters. The other thing I liked to do as a boy was to make models. Models of cars, airplanes, and boats. I was pretty good at this. I stopped building models around the 7th grade but I think my skill and interest in model making was what led me to studying sculpture in college.
How do you make your pictures look so real?
The kind of stories I write are mostly fantasies. When a story is about strange and incredible events, I think it’s important that the pictures convince the reader that the events described actually could happen. That is why I try to make my pictures look real. I do this by using real people as models of the characters in my books and by using the laws of perspective and lighting to make the places shown in the pictures appear as if they really exist.
What is your favorite Van Allsburg book? If you’ve never read a book, what are your favorite film adaptions? Let me know in the comments below.
Jumanji (1995), Van Allsburg as story writer
The Polar Express (2004), Van Allsburg as executive producer
Zathura: A Space Adventure (2005)
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017)
The Garden of Abdul Gasazi (1979), a Caldecott runner-up
Jumanji (1981), Caldecott Medal winner
Ben’s Dream (1982)
The Wreck of the Zephyr (1983)
The Mysteries of Harris Burdick (first ed., 1984)
The Enchanted World: Ghosts (1984)
The Polar Express (1985), Caldecott Medal winner
The Enchanted World: Dwarfs (1985)
The Stranger (1986)
The Z Was Zapped (1987), alphabet book ‡
Two Bad Ants (1988)
Swan Lake (1989), written by Mark Helprin
Just a Dream (1990)
The Wretched Stone (1991)
The Widow’s Broom (1992)
The Sweetest Fig (1993)
From Sea To Shining Sea: A Treasury Of American Folklore and Folk Songs (1993), compiled by Amy L. Cohn
Bad Day at Riverbend (1995)
A City in Winter (1996), by Mark Helprin
The Veil of Snows (1997), by Mark Helprin
Queen of the Falls (2011)
The Misadventures of Sweetie Pie (2014)