Van Allsburg, Chris 1949–
Chris Van AllsburgINTRODUCTION
American illustrator and author of picture books.
The following entry presents an overview of Van Allsburg's career through 2004. For further information on his life and works, see CLR, Volumes 5 and 13.
Van Allsburg is one of the most admired children's book author-illustrators of the past twenty-five years. Combining moody, dramatic drawings with unadorned prose, Van Allsburg creates stories in which the line between reality and the imagination is constantly blurred. His characters generally begin in the everyday world, but soon find that ordinary reality transforms into a realm of surreal and fantastic experiences. Van Allsburg's storybooks have been described as haunting, mysterious, and dreamlike, always celebrating the magnificent powers of the human imagination. While playful and lighthearted in many respects, his picture books often hint at a dark underlying mood of melancholy and foreboding. His skills as an illustrator have earned widespread acclaim from critics who praise his technical virtuosity as well as his highly original artistic vision. His Caldecott Award-winning titles include The Garden of Abdul Gasazi (1979), Jumanji (1981), and The Polar Express (1985). In his 1986 Caldecott Medal acceptance speech, Van Allsburg observed that, "Conceiving of something is only part of the creative process. Giving life to the conception is the other half. The struggle to master a medium, whether it's words, notes, paint, or marble, is the heroic part of making art." Van Allsburg's picture books have often been compared to the surrealist paintings of Salvador Dali, the mystery-suspense movies of Alfred Hitchcock, and the storybooks of Dr. Seuss.
Van Allsburg was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on June 18, 1949, the second child of Doris Christiansen Van Allsburg and Richard Van Allsburg. His father worked at a creamery owned by Van Allsburg's paternal grandfather and eventually moved his family to a burgeoning suburb, where the half-built houses and open fields became Van Allsburg's childhood playgrounds. Van Allsburg attended high school in East Grand Rapids and enrolled in the College of Architecture and Design at the University of Michigan in 1967. He majored in sculpture, graduating with a B.A. in 1972, and went on to earn a M.A. from the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design in 1975. That same year, Van Allsburg established a sculpture studio in Providence, Rhode Island, and married Lisa Morrison, with whom he has two children. His sculptures were first shown in New York City at the Alan Stone Gallery, with some of his illustrations later warranting an exhibit at the Whitney Museum of Art in 1978. In 1977 Van Allsburg returned to the Rhode Island School of Design as a drawing instructor. Encouraged by his wife and editors at the Houghton Mifflin Company, Van Allsburg created his first picture book, The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, in 1979. The work quickly became a critical and popular success, and Van Allsburg began publishing nearly a book a year until 1997, after which he took a five-year break before releasing his next original picture book, Zathura: A Space Adventure (2002). To date, there have been three major film adaptations of Van Allsburg's picture books—the live-action Jumanji (1995) and Zathura (2005) and the computer-animated The Polar Express (2004).
Van Allsburg's first picture book, The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, follows the adventures of a boy named Alan one afternoon when the dog he is supposed to be taking care of runs away. The dog, named Fritz, enters the mysterious topiary garden of Abdul Gasazi—at the entrance of which is posted a sign that reads, "Absolutely, positively no dogs allowed in this Garden"—and Alan follows him in. Inside the garden walls, Alan encounters the magician Abdul Gasazi, who turns Fritz into a duck. Some of the black-and-white pencil illustrations from The Garden of Abdul Gasazi were included in an exhibition of Van Allsburg's works at the Alan Stone Gallery in New York. In his next picture book, Jumanji, two suburban children, Judy and Peter, find a mysterious board game called Jumanji—"a young people's jungle adventure designed especially for the bored and restless"—in a park near their house. They take the game home, despite an eerie warning on the box that whoever starts playing the game will not be able to stop until it is completed. The game itself causes a range of wild beasts to invade their home, including lions, monkeys, and a herd of rhinoceroses. After Judy wins the game by reaching "the Golden City" of Jumanji, all of the beasts instantly disappear, leaving no trace of the massive mess they made in the children's home. Van Allsburg's illustrations for Jumanji were created with a Conte crayon to evoke photographic-looking images of the incongruous occurrences described in the story. In Ben's Dream (1982), Ben falls asleep while studying for a geography test on the great landmarks of the world. His dream takes him on an imaginary tour of such landmarks as the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and the Great Wall of China. When he wakes up, Ben learns that his friend Margaret, who appeared in his dream, had also been having the very same dream.
The Wreck of the Zephyr (1983) was Van Allsburg's first children's book with full-color illustrations. In this story, a young boy walking along the beach comes upon an old man, who proceeds to tell him a fantastic "story-within-a-story" about a boy who discovered a flying boat and soared above the town until the boat fell from the sky in a crash landing. By the end, it seems clear that the old man was once the child who found the flying boat. In illustrating The Wreck of the Zephyr, Van Allsburg combined thick Rembrandt pastels with fine-pointed pastel pencils to create dramatic effects, striking for both their realism and their evocativeness. Van Allsburg's The Mysteries of Harris Burdick (1984) is a unique work of children's literature in which fourteen evocative drawings, combined with enigmatic lines of text, are offered up to stimulate the reader's imagination, challenging them to invent a story around mysterious juxtapositions of image and text. Each two-page spread of The Mysteries of Harris Burdick includes a title and a first-line of a story on the left-hand page, with a moody, enigmatic black-and-white charcoal drawing on the facing page. The first of these offers the title "Archie Smith, Boy Wonder" paired with the line, "A tiny voice asked, 'Is this the one?'" In the accompanying illustration, a boy sleeps soundly in bed while points of light fly in through his window. In another, the title "Another Place, Another Time" is followed by "If there was an answer, he'd find it there," with an illustration of four children traveling by train track through a thick fog toward a magnificent castle that looms off in the distance. In The Polar Express—possibly Van Allsburg's most recognized picture book to date—an unnamed ten-year-old narrator describes his experiences one Christmas Eve, when a train called the Polar Express mysteriously appears in front of his house. Invited by a friendly conductor to board the train, the boy joins dozens of children passengers in their pajamas. The train takes the youngsters to the North Pole, where Santa Claus's toy-making empire appears as an industrialized city characterized by massive smokestack factories and thousands of elf-workers. In an annual North Pole ritual, the boy is chosen to be the first child of the year to receive a gift from Santa. He is given a sleigh bell from the harness of one of the reindeer, but soon loses it through a hole in his pocket. After returning home on the Polar Express, the boy awakens on Christmas morning to find the bell as a wrapped gift under his tree. In The Polar Express, Van Allsburg created wide double-paged spreads of stunning full-color pastel images, emphasizing the grandeur of the train itself, the landscapes it crosses, and the massive urban empire of Santa Claus. As Van Allsburg noted in his 1986 Caldecott Medal acceptance speech, "A good story uses the description of events to reveal some kind of moral or psychological premise…. When I started The Polar Express, I thought I was writing about a train trip, but the story was actually about faith and the desire to believe in something."
In the picture book Just a Dream (1990), Van Allsburg offers an undisguised message about the importance of environmentalism. Walter is a litterbug who shows no respect for the environment and refuses to recycle his trash. In a dream, he is transported to a nightmarish future in which the natural environment has been destroyed by pollution. When he wakes up, he is inspired to plant a tree in an effort to help preserve the majesty of nature. Van Allsburg composed the text of The Wretched Stone (1991) to resemble a captain's ship's log, in which the captain records the strange adventures that befell the crew of a ship called the Rita Anne. A large, brilliant stone brought aboard the ship from an island causes the sailors to turn into monkeys. The captain eventually restores the monkeys to human form by reading aloud to them, although the sailors retain their preference for eating bananas. In The Widow's Broom (1992), a widow living on a farm retrieves the broom of a crash-landed witch, finding that its magical powers can help her with such tasks as feeding the chickens and playing the piano. The Widow's Broom is ultimately a parable about persecution, in which a rural community finds themselves feeling threatened by the widow's strange and powerful broom. Zathura, subtitled "A Space Adventure," serves as an indirect sequel to Van Allsburg's earlier picture book Jumanji. Two brothers, Danny and Walter—neighbors of Peter and Judy, the protagonists from Jumanji—discover a board game which they take home to play. This time, instead of being invaded by jungle creatures, the gamesters find themselves in a world of outer-space adventures as their house flies off toward the purple planet of Zathura. Along the way, the brothers encounter such fantastic events as a meteor shower in their living room, a murderous "Zyborg pirate" robot, a black hole, and time travel. In addition to the picture books he has authored and illustrated himself, Van Allsburg has also provided artwork for several young adult novels written by Mark Helprin, including Swan Lake (1989), A City in Winter (1996), and The Veil of Snows (1997).
As both an author and an illustrator, Van Allsburg has won near-universal praise for his illustrative virtuosity and his unique artistic perspective. Peter F. Neumeyer has asserted that, "Van Allsburg's books are art works in the shape of books, art works accompanied by mysterious and thought-provoking stories." Examining nine of Van Allsburg's children's books published between 1979 and 1988, Neumeyer has reached several conclusions about the central thematic concerns that run throughout the author's oeuvre, contending that all of Van Allsburg's books express "the celebration of the imagination" and that his "pervasive theme" is "the Reality of the Imagination." A number of reviewers have remarked upon the cinematic qualities of Van Allsburg's stunning use of visual perspective, which resembles the often dramatic camera angles of motion pictures. In her review of Jumanji, Pamela D. Pollack has observed that, "[t]he eye-fooling angles, looming shadows and shifting perspectives are worthy of Hitchcock, yet all these 'special effects' are supplied with only a pencil." Van Allsburg's prose style has been characterized as straightforward and unadorned, with scholars noting his minimal use of adjectives or embellished language. While some have admired the brevity of Van Allsburg's narratives for allowing the artwork and the reader's individual imagination to flesh out the story, others have argued that Van Allsburg's plots are weak and merely serve as devices for presenting his illustrations. However, certain critics have asserted that Van Allsburg's illustrations strongly compliment his minimalist prose by depicting a more complex and nuanced story than that conveyed by the text. Joseph Stanton has commented that, "[t]he startling contrast between Van Allsburg's dull, though carefully crafted, prose and his extraordinary images operates as a continuous irony. It is key to the tension between the ordinary and the marvelous that is his central subject."
Van Allsburg has won numerous awards and accolades throughout his career, including Caldecott Medals for Jumanji and The Polar Express. He was awarded New York Times Best Illustrated Children's Books citations for The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, Jumanji, Ben's Dream, The Wreck of the Zephyr, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, The Polar Express, and The Stranger (1986). The Garden of Abdul Gasazi won a Caldecott Honor Book citation from the American Library Association and the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for illustration. Jumanji and The Wreck of the Zephyr were given New York Times Outstanding Books citations, and Ben's Dream, The Wreck of the Zephyr, and The Mysteries of Harris Burdick were included in the American Institute of Graphic Arts Book Show. Additionally, Van Allsburg received a nomination for the Hans Christian Andersen Award in 1985.
The Garden of Abdul Gasazi (picture book) 1979
Jumanji (picture book) 1981
Ben's Dream (picture book) 1982
The Wreck of the Zephyr (picture book) 1983
The Mysteries of Harris Burdick (picture book) 1984
The Polar Express (picture book) 1985
The Stranger (picture book) 1986
The Z Was Zapped: A Play in Twenty-Six Acts (picture book) 1987
Two Bad Ants (picture book) 1988
Swan Lake [illustrator; by Mark Helprin] (young adult novel) 1989
Just a Dream (picture book) 1990
The Wretched Stone (picture book) 1991
The Widow's Broom (picture book) 1992
The Sweetest Fig (picture book) 1993
Bad Day at Riverbend (picture book) 1995
A City in Winter [illustrator; by Mark Helprin] (young adult novel) 1996
The Veil of Snows [illustrator; by Mark Helprin] (young adult novel) 1997
Zathura: A Space Adventure (picture book) 2002
Chris Van Allsburg (essay date July-August 1986)
SOURCE: Van Allsburg, Chris. "Caldecott Medal Acceptance." Horn Book Magazine 62, no. 4 (July-August 1986): 420-24.
[In the following transcript of his 1986 Caldecott Medal acceptance speech, Van Allsburg discusses childhood influences on his creative process, the stylistic inspirations for The Polar Express, and his career as an author and illustrator.]
The first book I remember reading is probably the same book many people my age recall as their first. It was profusely illustrated and recounted the adventures and conflicts of its three protagonists, Dick, Jane, and Spot. Actually, the lives of this trio were not all that interesting. A young reader's reward for struggling through those syllables at the bottom of the page was to discover that Spot got a bath. Not exactly an exciting revelation. Especially since you'd already seen Spot getting his bath in the picture at the top of the page.
The Dick, Jane, and Spot primers have gone to that book shelf in the sky. I have, in some ways, a tender feeling toward them, so I think it's for the best. Their modern incarnation would be too painful to look at. Dick and Jane would have their names changed to Jason and Jennifer. Faithful Spot would be transformed into an Afghan hound, and the syllables at the bottom of the page would reveal that the children were watching MTV.
In third grade my class paid its first visit to the school library as prospective book borrowers. It was on this occasion that we learned about the fascinating Dewey decimal system. None of us really understood this principle of cataloging books, but we were inclined to favor it. Any system named Dewey was all right with us. We looked forward to hearing about the Huey and Louie decimal systems, too.
The book I checked out on my first visit was the biography of Babe Ruth. I started reading it at school and continued reading it at home. I read till dinner and opened the book again after dessert, finally taking it to bed with me. The story of Babe Ruth was an interesting one, but I don't think it was as compelling as that constant reading suggests. There was something else happening: I just simply did not know when to stop or why. Having grown up with television, I was accustomed to watching something until it was finished. I assumed that as long as the book was there I should read it to the end. The idea of setting the book aside uncompleted just didn't occur to me.
This somewhat obsessive approach to reading manifested itself again during the summer after third grade. My neighbor had a collection of every Walt Disney comic book ever published. I took my little wagon to his house and hauled every issue back to my bedroom. For a solid week I did nothing but read about Pluto, Mickey, Donald, and Daisy. It was spooky. By the sixth day they'd become quite real to me and were turning up in my dreams. After I returned the comics, I felt very lonely, as if a group of lively house guests had left suddenly.
As years have passed, my taste in literature has changed. I do, however, still have obsessive reading habits. I pore over every word on the cereal box at breakfast, often more than once. You can ask me anything about Shredded Wheat. I also spend more time in the bathroom than necessary, determined to keep up with my New Yorker subscription.
It seems strange now, considering my susceptibility to the power of the printed word, that I'd been reading for more than twenty years before I thought about writing. I had, by that time, staked out visual art as my form of self-expression. But my visual art was and is very narrative. I feel fortunate that I've become involved with books as another opportunity for artistic expression.
Over the years that have passed since my first book was published, a question I've been asked often is, "Where do your ideas come from?" I've given a variety of answers to this question, such as: "I steal them from the neighborhood kids," "I send away for them by mail order," and "They are beamed to me from outer space."
It's not really my intention to be rude or smart-alecky. The fact is, I don't know where my ideas come from. Each story I've written starts out as a vague idea that seems to be going nowhere, then suddenly materializes as a completed concept. It almost seems like a discovery, as if the story was always there. The few elements I start out with are actually clues. If I figure out what they mean, I can discover the story that's waiting.
When I began thinking about what became The Polar Express, I had a single image in mind: a young boy sees a train standing still in front of his house one night. The boy and I took a few different trips on that train, but we did not, in a figurative sense, go anywhere. Then I headed north, and I got the feeling that this time I'd picked the right direction, because the train kept rolling all the way to the North Pole. At that point the story seemed literally to present itself. Who lives at the North Pole? Santa. When would the perfect time for a visit be? Christmas Eve. What happens on Christmas Eve at the North Pole? Undoubtedly a ceremony of some kind, a ceremony requiring a child, delivered by a train that would have to be named the Polar Express.
These stray elements are, of course, merely events. A good story uses the description of events to reveal some kind of moral or psychological premise. I am not aware, as I develop a story, what the premise is. When I started The Polar Express, I thought I was writing about a train trip, but the story was actually about faith and the desire to believe in something. It's an intriguing process. I know if I'd set out with the goal of writing about that, I'd still be holding a pencil over a blank sheet of paper.
Fortunately, or perhaps I should say necessarily, that premise is consistent with my own feelings, especially when it comes to accepting fantastic propositions like Santa Claus. Santa is our culture's only mythic figure truly believed in by a large percentage of the population. It's a fact that most of the true believers are under eight years old, and that's a pity. The rationality we all embrace as adults makes believing in the fantastic difficult, if not impossible. Lucky are the children who know there is a jolly fat man in a red suit who pilots a flying sleigh. We should envy them. And we should envy the people who are so certain Martians will land in their back yard that they keep a loaded Polaroid camera by the back door. The inclination to believe in the fantastic may strike some as a failure in logic, or gullibility, but it's really a gift. A world that might have Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster is clearly superior to one that definitely does not.
I don't mean to give the impression that my own sense of what is possible is not shaped by rational, analytical thought. As much as I'd like to meet the tooth fairy on an evening walk, I don't really believe it can happen.
When I was seven or eight, on the night before Easter, my mother accidentally dropped a basket of candy outside my bedroom door. I understood what the sound was and what it meant. I heard my mother, in a loud whisper, trying unsuccessfully to keep the cats from batting jelly beans across the wooden floor. It might have been the case that the Easter Bunny had already become an iffy proposition for me. In any event this was just the moment the maturing skeptic in me was waiting for. I gained the truth, but I paid a heavy price for it. The Easter Bunny died that night.
The application of logical or analytical thought may be the enemy of belief in the fantastic, but it is not, for me, a liability in its illustration. When I conceived of the North Pole in The Polar Express, it was logic that insisted it be a vast collection of factories. I don't see this as a whim of mine or even as an act of imagination. How could it look any other way, given the volume of toys produced there every year?
I do not find that illustrating a story has the same quality of discovery as writing it. As I consider a story, I see it quite clearly. Illustrating is simply a matter of drawing something I've already experienced in my mind's eye. Because I see the story unfold as if it were on film, the challenge is deciding precisely which moment should be illustrated and from which point of view.
There are disadvantages to seeing the images so clearly. The actual execution can seem redundant. And the finished work is always disappointing because my imagination exceeds the limits of my skills.
A fantasy of mine is to be tempted by the devil with a miraculous machine, a machine that could be hooked up to my brain and instantly produce finished art from the images in my mind. I'm sure it's the devil who'd have such a device, because it would devour the artistic soul, or half of it anyway. Conceiving of something is only part of the creative process. Giving life to the conception is the other half. The struggle to master a medium, whether it's words, notes, paint, or marble, is the heroic part of making art. Still, if any of you run into the devil and he's got this machine, give him my name. I would, at least, like to get a demonstration.
An award does not change the quality of a book. I'm acutely aware of the deficiencies in all of my work. I sometimes think I'd like to do over everything I've ever done and get it right. But I know that a few years later I'd want to do everything over a third time.
This award carries with it a kind of wisdom for someone like me. It suggests that the success of art is not dependent on its nearness to perfection but its power to communicate. Things can be right without being perfect.
Though this is the second Caldecott Medal I've received, believe me, it is no less meaningful than the first. Being awarded the Caldecott is an experience to which one cannot become jaded. I am certain of this and stand ready to endure any efforts to prove otherwise.
I would like to thank these people at Houghton Mifflin for their support, encouragement, and, occasionally, commiseration: my editor, Walter Lorraine; Peggy Hogan; Sue Sherman; and Donna Baxter.
I would also like to take this opportunity to thank the people here tonight who have committed themselves to getting children and books together. I know that if it weren't for your efforts my readers would be not only small in size but in number, too.
And finally I'd like to thank Mae Benne and the other members of the Caldecott Committee for this great honor. I accept it as both praise and encouragement.
Chris Van Allsburg and Heather Vogel Frederick (interview date 14 October 2002)
SOURCE: Van Allsburg, Chris, and Heather Vogel Frederick. "Chris Van Allsburg." Publishers Weekly 249, no. 41 (14 October 2002): 27-8.
[In the following interview, Van Allsburg discusses the publication of Zathura: A Space Adventure, how the book functions as an indirect sequel to Jumanji, and his plans for future projects.]
It's been 20 years since Peter and Judy opened a mysterious board game named Jumanji that unleashed chaos inside the covers of the eponymous picture book and a virtual juggernaut of success for the author and illustrator. In addition to being awarded his first Caldecott Medal (he received a second in 1986 for The Polar Express ), Chris Van Allsburg also snagged a movie deal and the kind of exposure that most authors and illustrators dream of.
This fall, Van Allsburg is making a return trip to the visual landscape he explored in Jumanji with a sequel entitled Zathura (Houghton Mifflin, Oct.). "Each of the 20 years that has passed since Jumanji has brought a lot of mail from kids asking me what happened to Walter and Danny Budwing," says Van Allsburg. "I thought it might be interesting to figure out the answer."
The characters he's referring to are introduced on the last page, running off with the board game and clearly headed for trouble. Deciding what befalls them caused Van Allsburg "a little trepidation," he says. "Sequels often cross territory that's already been explored in the first effort, and sometimes they're dismissed as not particularly creative undertakings. I wondered if it would be possible to tell a story that actually worked on its own."
And so he decided to have the Budwing boys discover another game wedged in the bottom of the Jumanji box, a game that whisks them off to outer space and a wholly different set of adventures.
"The theme here is slightly different as well," Van Allsburg notes. "The boys have a relationship which I think is a little more pronounced than anything we knew about the siblings in Jumanji. "
Not surprising, given that the author-illustrator has become a father himself in the intervening years (he has two daughters) and is now fully versed in sibling relationships. "I didn't have to fish around very much for the patterns of behavior for an 11- and a sevenyear-old," he admits with a laugh.
In fact, his daughters served "not only as the behavioral but also the figurative models for the book," he says, explaining that he had to "slick their hair back so I could see their ears. They'd get a little edgy—the last picture I drew was one where they're wrestling, and they were really getting into it."
Fatherhood also brought another significant change in Van Allsburg's life: he gave up teaching at Rhode Island School of Design to be at home with his girls. "I found that the time that I spent away from the drawing board in the classroom, time that brought me a fair amount of pleasure and gratification, was now going to be spent with other young people."
Like Jumanji, Zathura is also illustrated in black and white, a medium Van Allsburg notes "is becoming stranger and stranger—it's almost vanished from newspapers, and you never see it in broadcast anymore." At the same time, it has become more intriguing to him, and he points to the Coen brothers' recent movie The Man Who Wasn't There as an inspiration. "The quality of light and mood and atmosphere in the film was just so compelling to me; it reconfirmed my conviction that black and white really can do it all," he says. "Plus, it reproduces so much better than color."
Creating Zathura took Van Allsburg about six or seven months, he estimates, fairly average for one of his books. "I work on a story for two or three weeks, and once I have a pretty good rough draft I start doing sketches. I do a lot of sketches, because for those 15 images I choose to put in a book, in telling that story in my mind there are 10,000 images. The process of trying to pick the ones that will add as much story value as possible to each page is a critical one."
As for what else he has up his sleeve, Van Allsburg says he's juggling several projects, including something that's been in development as a film for a long time. Zathura, meanwhile, has been optioned by Sony/Columbia, which also produced Jumanji. Whether or not he will be involved in the making of the movie remains to be seen at this point, he says. "With Jumanji I was pretty thickly involved, and I assume that, because I know the producers and they might value the contributions I could make, I might be involved in the development of Zathura. "
Still, he hastens to add, "an optioned project is just the first baby step. There's a long stairway to climb."
Chris Van Allsburg and Steven Heller (interview date November-December 2004)
SOURCE: Van Allsburg, Chris, and Steven Heller. "Chris Van Allsburg, Creator, The Polar Express." Print 58, no. 6 (November-December 2004): 50, 52, 334.
[In the following interview, Van Allsburg discusses film adaptations of his picture books and the development of The Polar Express as a "performance capture" animated film.]
This winter, director Robert Zemeckis and actor Tom Hanks, collaborators on Forrest Gump and Cast Away, premiere an entirely different kind of movie. Their film adaptation of the Chris Van Allsburg children's adventure book The Polar Express is a cinematic and technological breakthrough. For this curious tale, about a doubtful young boy who takes an extraordinary train ride to the North Pole and finds along the way that a sense of wonder is eternal for "those who believe," the filmmakers bring Van Allsburg's moodily surreal tableau to virtual life through a digital process called "performance capture," a unique combination of live action and animation that allows the actors to play any age demanded by the script. The technology further allows them to appear within an environment that replicates the tone and texture of the original pastel pictures in the book.
This is not the first time one of 55-year-old Van Allsburg's books has been recast on celluloid. Jumanji (1995), directed by Joe Johnston, starring Robin Williams and a young Kirsten Dunst, was an action adventure about children who are quite literally consumed by a jungle-themed board game wherein wild animals come to life. Williams, the "hunter," was lost in the game ages before, and this is his chance to escape. Anyone who remembers the book knows that the live action could not reproduce the sublimely eerie black-and-white pencil drawings. But with The Polar Express, the texture of the film is true to the artist's vision.
Van Allsburg's books (including his first Caldecott winner, The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, as well as The Wreck of the Zephyr, The Widow's Broom, Two Bad Ants, Ben's Dream, and others) are perfect storyboards for films. Each tale builds in dramatic force, while expressing pathos for character and situation. It is not surprising that Zemeckis and Hanks have used The Polar Express as a quintessential rite-of-passage tale. Christmas-themed books and films are routinely rooted in common stereotypes but, while the basic setting for The Polar Express may perpetuate the myth, the idea of self-discovery sets this narrative apart from most other holiday fare.
In this interview, the soft-spoken Van Allsburg discusses the compromises that came from allowing other artists to transform his book—a perfectly honed narrative entity—into their medium and sensibility, and the challenges and successes that emerged.
[Heller]: The Polar Express is your second feature film. When you created this andJumanji, did you see them in your mind's eye as movies?
[Van Allsburg]: Not in the sense that, when making them, I have ambitions or goals to turn them into films. Nor do I strive to produce stories that I think will lend themselves to reinterpretation as films. I do, however, see the stories I create play out in my mind's eye a bit like a film. When I'm writing a story, the words on the page are actually a description of the series of images that I imagine.
Philip Roth has long objected to having his novels adapted to film since they have been distorted in various ways. Did you have similar reservations?
Authors are not obligated to make their work available to filmmakers. Every author knows that the result of a rights sale can be a disappointing film. I had concerns about Jumanji and The Polar Express, but comforted myself with the notion that, no matter the outcome, the book would stay just as it was: the original representation of my ideas.
This rationale creates a kind of "no lose" proposition: If the film stinks, it will soon be forgotten, leaving the book as the relevant surviving version of the story. On the other hand, if the film replaces the book as the dominant version of the story, it can only do so if the film is extraordinarily successful, as with The Wizard of Oz. In a case such as that, the author's version was displaced by the film. However, having contributed to something that truly succeeds as film entertainment, the author was rewarded in other ways.
How do you feelJumanji worked as a movie? Did it accomplish what you intended in the original form?
It did not capture the feeling I strove to create in the book. The book's story and pictures were inspired by the idea of cognitive dissonance: the security of home juxtaposed with the peril of jungle adventure. The atmosphere and style of the drawings emphasize this quality, producing a combination of authenticity and fantasy. It becomes dreamlike, resembling Surrealist art. There is something about it, aside from the content, that is unaccountably menacing or disturbing. This quality of the book went unnoticed by the filmmakers, who chose to make something that felt like a fairly conventional action film. It wasn't bad, but it was not what I had hoped for.
In your conversations with director Robert Zemeckis—who also wrote the screenplay for the film—what was it that attracted him and the star, Tom Hanks, toThe Polar Express ?
I'm not sure. I think that, like many adults, they started reading a book they assumed was about their children, then realized it was really about them, too. It can stir pretty powerful memories. I think they were both interested in exploring the specific psychology of the protagonist, which is kind of profound, but presented in a very simple story.
The Polar Express is live-ish action that approximates your drawing, and yet is not traditional animation. Zemeckis had to invent an entirely new process. What did this entail?
Initially, it entailed ideas about reproducing such subtle elements as the slightly "dirty" and soft-edged quality of the pastel art of the book. That wasn't really feasible, but the book's pictures were used as a reference to guide the artists as they produced the digital environments for the film. The characters were created through a motion-capture process that produces a digitized performance derived from the actions of human actors. Those digitized performances are then located within the digital environments and the director has, at that point, a virtual reality through which he can move the camera and manipulate the lighting.
As author ofThe Polar Express, you have certain creative rights. In this case, however, another artist has invested his vision and technology. Was it easy for you to cede your creative ownership to someone else?
It's not easy if I have contemplated the challenge of expanding the story and feel that I have come up with an effective solution. At that point, my ideas for turning the book into a film must compete with the filmmakers'. Their ideas may be different, leading to a contest an author never wins. I believe, however, that artists produce their best work when unencumbered by the need to accommodate the demands of others. So even if my ideas go unacknowledged, I am willing to concede that letting the project proceed with a single vision controlling the outcome is, theoretically, a sound way to make art.
Still, you make your art, and then, based on your concept, another makes his art on top of what you've started. I know this is a common and time-worn tradition, but don't you feel the least bit compromised by the process?
No. Film is such a complicated medium and so different from a book that I accept that it will have little similarity to what I've done. My hope is modest: that a book of mine might inspire a talented filmmaker to create a good film that utilizes what is best in the book.
Did the actors bring to life the characters as you imagined them?
The Polar Express is not really as much about individual characters as it is about a quest or journey. There is a protagonist who is torn between believing in an idea, which he cherished, and not believing in it because it defies reason. This character's condition is effectively dramatized. In fact, it is essentially the theme of the film.
Do you ever picture an individual actor when you are creating a children's book? Is there an actual human analog to your imaginary characters?
Characterization in picture books is necessarily somewhat abbreviated. There simply isn't room in the text to develop a detailed character study. A great deal needs to be accomplished in the pictures. I sometimes have a face in mind when I draw—or, at least, a type. That might mean I have a specific model I intend to use or a determination to find a model whose face resembles the face I've imagined. As for behavior or personality, all the characters are probably some version of myself.
How involved were you in the overall production, like casting, art direction, etc.?
I had some involvement in the beginning, talking with writers and attempting to establish a tone for the film. The director's commitment to making the film look as much as possible like "the book come to life" left little for me to do in the way of influencing the look of the film.
Through motion-capture technology, Tom Hanks [is able to play] a number of different characters. Accepting this casting meant placing as much faith in the technology as the actor. About the actor, I was confident.
I know for a fact that you are an extremely meticulous illustrator. While you routinely experiment with media and form, you are a perfectionist and, therefore, like having control. With this film, was there ever a time when you wanted to trade places with the filmmaker?
Film is an incredibly potent medium, and the idea of having all its elements at my disposal is appealing. It is also intimidating, considering the costs involved, and looks, in some cases, to be a very high-stakes undertaking. I'm not sure I'd be comfortable under those conditions or making all the decisions and compromises that are a part of the deal.
Your work has long had a surreal, fantastic quality with a hint of mischief to add drama. The Polar Express is full of mystery and a certain level of sadness. What was your impetus for the book?
At first, it was just a story about a train that could go anywhere. When I decided the destination would be the North Pole and the departure date would be December 24th, the story turned out to be about the feelings nine-year-olds have, clinging on Christmas Eve to an idea that is under heavy assault from their own maturing rationality.
Does the script reflect the more melancholy moments of the book? Or did you sacrifice any of the moodiness of the book for greater uplift?
The film story is probably less melancholy, but not as a result of a determination to purge it of pathos. The excitement of the ride north becomes a more dominant emotional component of the story. The lessons imparted to the child passengers in the film are, perhaps, explicitly uplifting. However, the dark palette of the book seems to be intact, and there is, from what I have seen, a sort of subtextural moodiness.
Would you be open to directing your own film?
I can imagine doing it, because I feel I understand it. But I've never studied filmmaking and I don't think I could utter anything close to "What I'd really like to do is direct" and keep a straight face. But yes, I confess. Telling a story with the comprehensive, powerful tools of cinema is a very seductive idea.
Peter F. Neumeyer (essay date 1989)
SOURCE: Neumeyer, Peter F. "How Picture Books Mean: The Case of Chris Van Allsburg." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 15, no. 1 (1989): 2-8.
[In the following essay, Neumeyer examines the text, illustrations, and overall design of Van Allsburg's first nine children's picture books in terms of the author's recurring theme of "imagination," commenting that several of "Van Allsburg's books declare that Imagination is 'real,' that the world in the mind, including the child's world of fantasy, is actual, true, even tangible."]
Chris Van Allsburg is a distinguished sculptor who obtained his degree in that art from the Rhode Island School of Design. Thus it is not surprising that Chris Van Allsburg's first children's book has on its cover extraordinary and magically three-dimensional topiary sculptures in the shape of rabbit, duck, seal, and elephant. The 1979 publication of The Garden of Abdul Gasazi marked the debut of a new star among children's book illustrators. Appropriately, the book won recognition as a "Caldecott Honor" book. In the subsequent seven years, Van Allsburg won the Caldecott Medal itself twice, for Jumanji in 1981, and for The Polar Express in 1987.
The outstanding illustrator, David Macauley, has written an eloquent testimonial for Van Allsburg. But it does not take an expert to recognize Van Allsburg's distinction. The nine illustrated children's books he has published have won almost unqualified acclaim and have fascinated adults as much as they have the children. They clearly stand out against the humdrum ephemera that clutter children's bookstores seasonally, and that disappear almost as quickly as they are published. Van Allsburg's books are art works in the shape of books, art works accompanied by mysterious and thought-provoking stories. To examine them carefully is to give oneself a lesson in how picture books work.
I'd like to look at all nine of Van Allsburg's books ostensibly for children, exploring what these books mean, and how they achieve that "meaning." We shall have to look at them with extreme care—to look at all aspects of the books, for in the case of a very good picture book—and Van Allsburg's certainly fall into that category—every part of the book works harmoniously with every other part to create a singleness of effect, to create a "meaning." The prose, the illustration, and the physical appearance of all nine of his books are related.
Six of them appear to make virtually identical statements; three make statements that are closely connected. Six of Van Allsburg's books declare that Imagination is "real," that the world in the mind, including the child's world of fantasy, is actual, true, even tangible. That may be a difficult concept for a child, but one of the remarkable aspects of Van Allsburg's work is precisely this desire to translate a metaphysical concept into verbal and pictorial shape so that it may be comprehended—at some level—by a child.
In order to clarify the statement of the six very similar books, we shall first isolate the statement each makes in the narrative itself. Secondly, we shall look at the illustrations—the manner in which what happens or what is meant is depicted visually. Thirdly, we shall note the language of each statement. And finally, we shall look at aspects of book design, as those aspects, too, help to communicate the meaning.
In three of the books, children fall asleep, have extraordinary adventures, and return from whatever world they inhabited during their sleep, only to find, on their return, some incontestable and objective proof that the land they were in during their sleep was truly and objectively there.
In The Garden of Abdul Gasazi (1979) young Alan Mitz is dogsitting for Miss Hester; he falls asleep on the couch, putting his hat under his shirt for safekeeping. Alan dreams that Fritz, the dog, runs into the garden of the magician, Abdul Gasazi. Alan chases the dog, whom the magician, however, has transformed into a duck. As Alan carries the dog-duck home, his hat flies off his head and is caught and carried off by the dog-duck. When Miss Hester comes home, Alan wakes and tells his story as the dog sits watching. Alan is hatless. Miss Hester assures Alan that Fritz had been sitting in the front yard, waiting for her. Alan, feeling foolish, tells himself he won't be duped again, and he goes home. When he has departed, Miss Hester calls Fritz, who trots up to her and drops at her feet the hat Alan had put under his shirt when he fell asleep. Here is empirical evidence of the "reality" of the world of Alan's dream. There's no conclusion possible except that Fritz must, indeed, have been the "duck" that, in Alan's dream, flew off with his hat.
In Ben's Dream (1982) the reader/viewer takes the role of the objective observer who finds the reality of the dream world corroborated by two independent witnesses who cannot be making up a story, since the reader observes the "reality" himself. Ben and Margaret pedal their bikes home to study their Geography textbooks—presumably the section on famous monuments of the world. As Ben sits home alone, studying, the rain begins, and as it rains harder, Ben is lulled asleep. Soon, the rain becomes a large body of water outside the window. As various great monuments—the leaning tower of Pisa, the Great Wall of China, and others—pass by, we are constantly aware that we are seeing them from Ben's perspective, since, in each picture, we see a bit of Ben's house, and in some we see parts of Ben. At the end, we learn that Margaret had seen exactly the same monuments, that they had been floating, half under water, for her, just as they had for Ben.
Margaret says to Ben that he would never guess whom she saw as she floated by. But he does know; it was Ben, himself, whom Margaret had seen. Now, how could Ben know that? Simple. He saw her too, just as they were floating by the Sphinx. But obviously, Ben could be fibbing, couldn't he? But he wasn't fibbing; not at all! We can prove it to ourselves merely by turning back to the page with the Sphinx, half submerged. There we see Margaret looking out of her house; and there, too, in the foreground, is Ben's arm stretched out, waving to her. In their respective dreams, Ben truly saw Margaret, and Margaret saw Ben. And the objective evidence of the merging reality of the two dreams is logically indisputable. We need not rely on the two children's stories. We can see it for ourselves in the objective world of the story.
In The Polar Express (1985) a nameless first person narrator tells a story of "many years ago." On Christmas Eve, when very young, he falls asleep. Outside, he hears bells ringing. He looks out his window and sees a train in the snow. He hops aboard, is taken through snowy woods to the North Pole, where Santa and his elves are at work. Santa gives the boy a little silver sleigh bell—"the first gift of Christmas." The next morning, the boy's sister finds one last present under the tree, a little box containing a silver bell and a card that says "Found this on the seat of my sleigh. Fix that hole in your pocket. Signed 'Mr. C.'" The boy/narrator shakes the bell, and it makes the most beautiful sound he and his sister ever heard. But the parents seem to hear nothing, saying "Oh, that's too bad," and "Yes, it's broken." On the last page, the narrator tells us that although once most of his friends were able to hear the bell, there came a time when his sister no longer was able to hear it. But now, although the narrator is old, "the bell rings for me as it does for all who truly believe."
Again, as in The Garden and in Ben's Dream, when we return with the narrator from the dream world, back to our daily world, Van Allsburg presents us with objective evidence from that other world.
In Jumanji the parents of Jody and Peter go to the opera, leaving the children home with toys with which they soon become bored. The children run outside and find a long, thin box with the label, "Jungle Adventure Game" under a tree. They take the game home, and as the children roll the dice and move their markers along the board's spaces through the game's "jungle," they find themselves trapped in a world of lions, monkeys, tsetse flies, monsoon rains, and other tropical hazards, all, seemingly, in their own house. Judy wins the game, arrives at the magical city, shouts "Jumanji," and the children run out, put the game back under the tree, and fall asleep on the sofa.
Their parents come home, bringing with them their friends, the Budwings. The parents wake the children; the Budwings (whose own children are now home alone, as Judy and Peter were) make polite chitchat with Judy and Peter, and then the adults go about their affairs. The children return to the puzzle they had been doing when their parents left, but then, as they look out the window, they see the Budwings' sons, Walter and Danny, running from the same tree, carrying the same long thin box with the magical world of Jumanji within it. They, too, presumably, will enter the hazardous jungle world.
That Judy and Peter had fallen asleep at the outset is not stated explicitly, but it is strongly suggested because the book's objective narrator, not implicated in the story, tells us that they were asleep when the parents came home. Presumably the Jumanji adventures happened in the world of dream. That the Budwing children are now seen running off with the same box at very least establishes the reality of the boxed game which Judy and Peter had found at book's outset, quite likely in their dream. The adults see nothing of this world, however; it is as closed to them as was the sound of Santa's bell in The Polar Express. The humdrum adult prosaicness is rendered not only by what they don't see, but by what they say, as well as what we (through the children's eyes) see of them.
The Wreck of the Zephyr (1983) is also a story of the reality, this time not precisely of the world of sleep and dream, but of the world of the unconscious. The primary narrator, whom we have no reason to doubt, travels along the seashore and there, on cliffs high above the sea, finds the wreck of a small sailboat. An old man, a secondary narrator, tells him the strange tale of how, years ago, a small boy had gone sailing. A sudden gust caught the sail, the boom swung about, and the boy was knocked unconscious onto the deck. When he "opened his eyes," he found the boat and himself cast high adrift on the beach. Strange sailboats were floating through the sky. In the evening, the boy sneaks out aboard the Zephyr, and does, indeed, make her rise out of the water. Using the stars for a guide, the boy sails the Zephyr through the clouds and the sky until he reaches his town, where the boat falls down through the trees between the village and the open sea. And there the Zephyr sits today; and that is the boat the primary narrator happened upon in his stroll.
Having told the story of the Zephyr, the old man walks away. Knowing story conventions, we may well assume the old man was the boy, who—he said—"never amounted to much." And we are left with the listener, the narrator, whom we have no reason to doubt, and who found the stranded boat that is visible proof of the truth of the boy's experiences with the flying Zephyr.
Finally, the remaining book whose subject is unequivocally the reality of the imagination, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick (1984), is more a game or puzzle book than a sustained and plotted narrative like the five above. Still, its point is the same: the celebration of the imagination. In the preface, the man who signs himself Chris Van Allsburg tells us that he first saw the fourteen drawings that comprise most of the book in the home of one Peter Wenders. When Wenders used to work for a publisher, "Van Allsburg" tells us, a man calling himself Harris Burdick came to visit Wenders and told him he had written fourteen stories and drawn many pictures for them. He brought just one drawing for each of the fourteen stories with him, he said, but he agreed to bring the stories on the following day. But Burdick was never seen again; to this day, he is a mystery. And all that remains are Burdick's fourteen drawings, with dozens of stories inspired by the drawings, written by Wenders's children and their friends. This book consists of the fourteen eerily evocative drawings, with imaginative captions and gnomic single-sentences that read as though they are from some work of which we should know the name.
The remaining books do not repeat the identical point of these first six, but certainly their import is, in varying degrees, similar.
In 1987, Van Allsburg published an alphabet book. Although it does seem to have a unifying theme—the mangling, distortion or obscuring of the letters of the alphabet—it does not, strictly speaking, have a plot. And yet the title, as rendered on the title page, reads as follows:
The Alphabet Theatre
The Z Was
The Caslon Players
Written and Directed by
Mr. Chris Van Allsburg
Indeed, the letters of the alphabet are presented as actors on stage, each letter "appearing" on a stage with curtains drawn aside and with curtained backdrop. The letters, then, too, as actors on stage, are part of the world of illusion.
The two books I would not list as explicit statements of the reality of the imagination are The Stranger (1986) and Two Bad Ants (1988). Clearly, each is imaginative. In the first, the "stranger" is Winter personified, who is accidentally hit by a farmer's truck, who comes to stay with the farm family while he recuperates, and who gives intimations that his very breath is chilling, and, at the end, mysteriously departs.
The second, Two Bad Ants, recounts the adventures of two ants who foray with their brethren on a hunt for sugar, are left behind in the house of human beings, undergo terrors in the strange world of giants, and, at the end, make it safely back to the tribe.
The point of this recapitulation of plots is to show that six of the nine books tells a story in which, at the end, there is objective evidence that creations of the imagination are real. In the three remaining, there is, at very least, a playful manipulation of the objective world.
In most of the stories, we rely on the impartial narrator, a narrator whom we assume to be reliable. Ben's Dream is the most convincing in making the case since we need not rely merely on what the narrator tells us, but we can actually "see" the proof on the page on which Ben and Margaret wave to each other in their dreams. If we can actually see it, then it really must be true.
The message of the majority of these books is that creations of imagination, especially in the fantasy of children, are objectively real. The stories recounted above say as much openly. But my point is to see how picture books work, and to note how the message is conveyed not merely in the bare story line, but by the illustrations too, as well as by the prose style, and even by the appearance or layout of the book.
The illusionistic nature of The Garden of Abdul Gasazi is announced on the dust jacket which does not present "pictures," essentially one-dimensional representations of "reality," but rather attempts to surpass the normal flatness of a painting or a drawing. As mentioned at the outset, the dust jacket shows sculptures—topiary "carvings" representing animals, presumably in the magician's garden. The artist has employed a sort of trompe l'oeil illusionism not unknown to artists of the Renaissance, who would paint madonnas and Christ child in, say, a window frame out of which, or over which, would hang drapery or grapes apparently so that one is tempted to touch them.
The illusory three-dimensionality is achieved by Van Allsburg, trained as a sculptor, by techniques of chiaroscuro, dramatic lighting and shading, as well as by the shadows cast by the topiary plantings and by most other objects later in the book. Additionally, Van Allsburg attains the sense of three-dimensionality by frequently changing the viewer's point of view of perspective, thus almost giving the sense that the beholder is walking around the pictured objects. The consequence is that the beholder obtains a sense of roundness, of depth and distance, that gives the entire book a semblance of magic realism—a realism more real than real, which becomes, then, of course, surreal.
On the dust jacket of this, Van Allsburg's first book, we should note, too, the dog, a Boston Bull, who, appears in one guise or another (sometimes transformed into a horse with blinkers over its eyes) in subsequent volumes—a sort of Van Allsburg signature, perhaps, comparable to the Noah's ark which Kipling puts (as a rebus for his initials—"R. K.") in odd corners of his illustrations for the Just So Stories. On another level, the recurrence of the dog strongly denotes that, among all the volumes in which he appears, there is an underlying unity.
The illustrations, done in black and white with carbon pencil, stress architectural constructions, interiors of houses, sumptuous facades led to by imposing stairways. Significantly, Alan's and Fritz's entrance into the magician's garden is through an archway behind which lies a deep tunnel of trees. This archway seems to stress the sense of depth and perspective in the drawing, a sense strongly suggesting the distance that Alan and the dog travel in their voyage into Alan's dream. In fact, the depth and distance is doubly stressed in this particular illustration in that, outside the archway, there are two parodies of "classic" statues which, however, do not face us, as they normally would in a composed illustration, but which have their backs to us and which seem to be lurching in through the archway, just like Alan himself. In short, it is a deep, long trip that Alan and Fritz take.
In Ben's Dream, the actual proof of the reality of the dream world lies not so much in the statement by Margaret and Ben that they saw each other during their dreams, but even more convincingly, in the proof readers can provide for themselves merely by looking at the illustration in which Margaret looks out the window at Ben, and Ben's arm is waving to her, as they float by a huge Sphinx.
In The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, the scenes' reality is heightened by chiaroscuro and by an insistent perspective. And this sur-or super reality is part of the strategy of persuading us that Alan's dream world is actual. In Ben's Dream, we also have Van Allsburg's habitual use of architectural perspective to give the illusion of depth, as well as the heavy shading, suggesting a light source within the picture. Actually, though, the shading is not subtly graduated as in the previous books, but frequently superimposed on much more distinct lines than in Abdul Gasazi —a technique that's also the hallmark of the 1988 book Two Bad Ants. But here we have an additional element as well.
In The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, the angle of vision is frequently as though the viewer were almost lying on the ground, facing the pictured scene head-on, but from slightly below the point of interest. In Ben's Dream, on the other hand, once Ben has fallen asleep, the angles from which the famous landmarks are seen change at dizzying pace from page to page. We have lost our stability, our spatial locus, in the illustrations, and they take on a sense of hallucinatory rudderlessness in space. For, indeed, Ben, in his dream, is, of course, in another world which is not bound by our logical laws of space and time.
In addition to the shifting angles of vision, Van Allsburg has unsettled our perception by an extraordinary and discordant inconsistency in the individual black lines which he uses to define space and objects. Conventionally, in the earliest and the last pages of the book, which represent time when the children are awake, not dreaming, the shading or hatching is sustained and consistent, each surface or each shadow being established by more or less parallel lines. But once the children are in the dream world with its shifting perspectives and points of view, tossed about, as it were, on the ocean of their dreams, the instability of the view is rendered frequently by a cacophonous discordance, by a clash of the individual lines which denote even a single object. What this says is that even though the world of dream is a real one, it exists in a manner quite different from our mundane and daily one.
Finally, denoting a sort of thematic unity with the first book, the Boston Bull Terrier who was Fritz in The Garden of Abdul Gasazi here appears in a framed picture. The continuity from the first book, the hook into Alan Mitz's world, is marked by the dog, but perhaps because in Ben's World the dream world is more clearly demarcated, more clearly announced, the real dog from the first volume is now in a framed picture. He is merely an image of that real dog.
The Polar Express is a book in which every detail shows the planning, the premeditation, and the excellence of execution of the finest contemporary children's picture books. The dust jacket shows the Polar Express, with its piercing headlight signalling the emphasis on mysterious lights throughout the book. And again, there is distortion as the unconventionally wide illustrations give the impression of wide angle, or even of a fish-eye lens, once again suggesting the distortion of things we experience in our dreams. Carefully, the illustrations are designed so that no crucial element will fall within the sewn channel between pages.
Most strikingly, the width of the "wide angle lens" may be perceived on the page on which three wolves are set against the double spread, wide apart, making the facing pages seem almost wider than they already are. And then the pages are made wider yet by the length of the train that spreads across the pages, brought clearly to the viewer's eye because its length is punctuated by the lights luminating the compartments of the cars, and glowing like an elongated ellipsis across the facing pages. Set in contrast to this width are the vertical trees of the northern forest through which the train passes, and through which the wolves roam. The presumably tall trees are vertical, but they are cut off abruptly by the page format, thus again underlining the width, the breadth of the vision. And such breadth stresses, accentuates, "narrates" the broad space through which the train travels.
Again, too, signalling the continuity with the previous books (thus, again, blending "meaning" in this one with "meaning" in the others), there is the Boston Bull—not an actual dog, but a hand puppet on the narrator-boy's bedpost. Again, the dog is imaginary rather than real, and this coincides with the topic of the book—the relationship of imagination to "reality"—though, of course, the very point of the book is that imagination is also reality.
Another noteworthy statement is made by the portrayal of Santa, himself. Van Allsburg's Santa has none of the cuteness or the roly poly jollity of the conventional Christmas card Santa. Rather, he and his reindeer, as depicted in one of the central spreads of the book, have a monumental, a sort of statuesque grandeur and high-seriousness. Santa and the reindeer seem to look out of carved eye sockets almost like Greek statues, and Santa's arms and body, as well as the necks of the reindeer, have a columnar and unrealistic, abstracted roundness and bulk. In their statuesque immobility, they seem removed from life, and thus they enter the realm, perhaps, of symbol.
Related to this symbolic magnification is a hushed silence that lends elevation and dignity to the story. The "hush," which also is part of the reality, is achieved by the muted colors, by the understated prose, by the static quality of the frame around pictures and text, and by the lack of motion as represented in the reindeer, as much as by the story itself.
The significant point about the strange nature of reality is again stressed (and repeatedly re-emphasized) in illustrations such as the first glimpse we have of the North Pole. Our first glimpse of the Pole is a picture of mist, of snow, and of more of the mysterious lights which flicker throughout the book, as well as a reflection of all these mists, snows, and lights. What the reflection is in, we do not know precisely. No lake is mentioned in the text, but it seems that there may, or must, be some body of water in which the boy/narrator sees his whole vision of the North Pole twice—in the shimmering, dream-like blur, and then in the very reflection of that blur again. What is real?
Jumanji, done with Conte dust and Conte pencil, in shades of white, gray, and black, is pyrotechnical in its shifting perspectives. Seen sometimes from above, sometimes from below, always some aspect of the scene looms enormously, frequently bringing the viewer closer to the scene than is comfortable. The viewer would like to be adjusted or eased into a more comfortable perspective in relation to what's there. But that is impossible.
Even the contrast between the imaginativeness of the children and the limitation of adults is made humorous pictorially. Van Allsburg renders the parents as prosaic adults who come home from the opera, bringing their friends, the Budwings, with them. How is the "prosaicness" of the adults shown? Perhaps by means of a little joke: we actually never see the adults' faces—merely their not very imaginative costumes in a curious illustration that shows the parents from knee level to neck. And what we see, presumably of Judy's and Peter's father, is a fountain pen clip protruding from the white dress shirt pocket. Now, a man who has his fountain pen clipped, accountant-fashion, into his white shirt when he goes to the opera….!
In The Wreck of the Zephyr, precursor and companion volume to The Polar Express, the subject is the "reality" of what transpires in an unconscious state. Like The Polar Express, the book is in full color, suggesting that when Van Allsburg deals with great vistas, he resorts both to color and to the elongated format. The difference between the use of the elongated format in The Polar Express and in The Wreck of the Zephyr lies in the fact that essentially the vector, the line of force, in the former remains horizontal—representing the long voyage, perhaps—whereas in the latter, the impetus is distinctly diagonal in those illustrations rendering the sailboat(s), thus pictorially giving the impression of a boat tossed dizzyingly on the waves.
The reality of what is imagined here takes the specific form of the surviving, living reality of what had happened in the past. The primary narrator, a bearded man of middle age (Van Allsburg?)—stands with his back to us, looking after the "old man with the pipe." It is significant that no character in the entire book is ever shown face on. Thus, the whole book seems to be retrospective, looking into the past, as indeed, the words tell us it is.
Just as in The Polar Express, a certain stillness imbues the dream adventures that are narrated in this tale—an air evoked by the muted colors. Just as The Polar Express gives a pervading sense of dignified silence, so in this book, at least in the night-time scenes the enveloping dark, calm blue is punctuated only by pin-point lights of stars, and of window lights in houses. Finally, too, the Bull Terrier appears in the book's third illustration.
The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, a sort of puzzle or activity book demanding reader participation, more resembles Ben's Dream than it does the others. This resemblance is suggested further by the square, rather than elongated, format which it shares with Ben's Dream.
Unlike the major, elongated books, The Mysteries does not so much state that the imagination is real, as it implies the fact. As in all the other books, the illustrations—which this time are not merely illustrations accompanying a text, but are said to be artifacts, illustrations—blur the line between the "real" and the "imaginative." Being a type of secondary imagina-tive renderings of the imaginative, they, too, become doubly confusing by their illusionistic, highly modelled "plasticity"—their sculptural realism existing within a dream framework. The effect is again achieved through the techniques of chiaroscuro and the shifting perspectives from picture to picture, making us feel as if we were walking around in reality.
Because of its oddness, one might think that The Stranger is one of Van Allsburg's primary statements of the reality of imagination. But it is not. It is the unsettling (both visually and verbally) story of Winter personified—a distinct personality, occasionally wide-eyed as on the dust jacket, occasionally wooden, as in the picture in which he is dancing with the family. The illustration has the static quality of one frame of a film. The story is eerily supernatural, but the subject of the book is not the relationship of this supernaturalness to reality. The story maintains, simply, that the events did happen. We can make of them what we will.
The Z Was Zapped does not have a sequential narrative. The illusory nature of reality, or the reality of illusion, is stated thematically by the animated letters of the alphabet, which perform their action on a painted stage, as well as by the playful prefatory theatre bill. The whole, though, is more a jeux d'esprit than a linear exposition of the "reality problem." Pictorial rather than narrative, it is more in the vein of Escher or of Anno's alphabet than the comparable, exclusively verbal high jinx of the late Jorge Luis Borges which, being narrative, entail a verb, and thus a proposition.
Two Bad Ants seems entirely different from all the earlier books. Heightened, shocking in effect because it is viewed from the ants' perspective, the primary reality of quotidian is never called into question, and dream reality is not at issue. The premise of the book is simply that of Gulliver's voyage to Lilliput. Given the fact that the protagonists are a centimeter in size, the rest follows logically.
Books, even picture books, generally are story. Van Allsburg—illustrator though he may be—has conveyed his story not merely in pictures, but also in prose. And if Van Allsburg's pervasive theme is the Reality of the Imagination, then we should look with care at the manner in which the prose text has underscored this theme. That is not difficult to do, and we may save considerable time by focusing primarily on The Polar Express. (Jumanji, The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, and most of the other books expressing the same theme, follow the same method.)
The objectively proved statement of The Polar Express is that a dream is as "real" as a bell. To convey such a concept has required difficult, abstract language of more than one philosopher. But such is not the case with our illustrated books. Backtrack for a moment to the illustrations. These are plastic, superreal in perspective and modelling, and make definitive statements by dimensions and breadth. Their three-dimensional "thereness" is undermined only slightly in some by the blurring of "texture."
And now consider merely the words accompanying the first vision we and the children have (in The Polar Express ) of the North Pole. Van Allsburg sets the words in a narrow column, enclosed in hard, no-nonsense black lines that seem doubly to emphasize the message, "there's nothing blurry about childhood imagination; it's hard fact." The text declares,
The mountains turned into hills, the hills to snow covered plains. We crossed a barren desert of ice—the Great Polar Ice Cap. Lights appeared in the distance. They looked like the lights of a strange ocean liner sailing on a frozen sea. "There," said the conductor, "is the North Pole."
What is startling is the very normality, the mundane simplicity of this writing. Every sentence is simple and declarative. With the exception of slight inversion in the last sentence, they all follow the most basic, straightforward sentence pattern—subject, predicate. There is nothing fancy, elaborate, artful—except the effect achieved by the seeming lack of "artfulness." The prose, we might say, is eminently prosaic (as opposed to poetical). And this prosaic writing is worth noting because, like the bass accompaniment to a melody, it keeps being the "ground," the linguistic background against which the miraculous picture story is set. Quite matter-of-factly, our author tells us in this remarkable picture book: children live/dream their very real miracles. Many adults lose that ability. The "I" of the story—obviously an artist, as this book proves—still lives/dreams his childhood miracles. In other words, that miracles and the dreams of children occupy a real time/space is triply emphasized: by illustration, by the obvious clarity and common sense of the prose text, and by the layout, to be discussed below.
What we have seen in the prose of The Polar Express is true for all Van Allsburg's books. Instead of saying that Van Allsburg is an illustrator rather than a writer, it is more accurate to say that in the combination of strikingly stylized illustration with clear, serviceable prose that does not call attention to itself, Van Allsburg gives unique expression to the ordinariness of the extraordinary—for those who have an open eye and the skill to perceive.
The argument that such a prose style is a conscious achievement, rather than a lack of art, lies in the fact that it is a style Van Allsburg progressed to, rather than one he began with. Just as his first book, The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, is marginally more baroque—i.e. its pages of text are surrounded by a foliated frieze margin—so the early prose itself is marginally more discursive than the later, containing more adjectival superlatives, as well as more stage business in the form of dialogue.
Moreover, though certainly Van Allsburg's range of prose style is not demonstrably extensive, we do, also, see what may have been a premeditated distinction in The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, the book that stands most apart from the others. In that book, although in most instances Van Allsburg maintains his matter of fact style, he does, on occasion, seem to venture a sort of mock Victorian melodrama:
He had warned her about the book.
Now it was too late.
His heart was pounding.
He was sure he had seen the doorknob turn.
The above deviations from the totally objective are slight variations from Van Allsburg's norm, and even in this book, in which the task of the illustrations is precisely to picture the bizarre, the very extraordinariness of this bizarre quality is underscored by the undramatic style. Thus the straightforward caption, "She lowered the knife and it grew even brighter" accompanies the startling illustration of a frightened, wide-eyed woman about to cut into a pumpkin that glows like a bright lantern. The woman and all surrounding objects are thrown into dramatic and startling relief.
And even though in Jumanji, we might find that the text is marginally more elaborate than in The Polar Express, by and large, our generalization remains: the repeated theme of Chris Van Allsburg is the reality of the world of the imagination. He makes his point by treating the amazing as though it were absolutely normal, resorting neither to metaphor, to hyperbole, or to other elevating devices of language.
Design of the Books
These nine books are all well produced. That is important because it says that the artist's statement is treated with the significance it deserves. It also invites us to attempt to discover the manner in which the thoughtful book production is designed to support or to demonstrate the theme. We will look at several details of this design or production in order to see how it works.
1. Trim size, covers, and front matter: Speaking somewhat loosely, Van Allsburg's books come in three trim sizes: Ben's Dream and The Mysteries of Harris Burdick —not precisely the same size, but tending to the square; The Z Was Zapped and Two Bad Ants, not precisely the same size, but distinctly vertical (taller than they are wide); and the remaining five, distinctly horizontal—much wider than they are tall.
Each trim size includes books that clearly state Van Allsburg's thesis both in words and in pictures, so we can draw no conclusion about content from the size of the books. At most, we might say that the two more-or-less square books are both on the order of puzzle books. Playfully and more obviously than the larger books, they set out the problem or visual puzzle that is to be solved.
The five horizontally elongated books, which are, in my view, the most important ones, have handsome cloth covers. The Polar Express, The Stranger, and The Wreck of the Zephyr seem almost a series, although there are slight variations. The cloth covers are embossed with gold or with silver lettering or illustration. The endpapers are heavy, textured, and strikingly coordinated or contrasted to the cover cloth, as well as to each other. Then, in contrast to many mindlessly assembled children's books, the Union Catalogue front matter is not squeezed onto the title page. There is ample white space, as well as broad title pages with the text set in clean and attractive type. Entering the books, one has the feeling of entering an attractive and uncluttered house through a spacious hallway in which one may prepare for what is to come.
2. Other matter in support of the theme: Van Allsburg says not only that the creations of Imagination are Reality, but he sets himself the writerly-aesthetic task of demonstrating that the two are not demarcated from each other. The space inside and outside the book: now, there could possibly be two different "realities" and "imaginative areas"—one within the context and universe of the storybook itself; the other outside the book, between the reader and the storybook. Both these possible lines of demarcation are dealt with by Van Allsburg.
First, Van Allsburg, like many artists of the illustrated book, but perhaps more purposefully, denies the line demarcating the world of the reader from that of "mere" book by the simple device of omitting page numbers. The reader inhabits the same psychological space as the pictorial narrative.
The second way in which the relationship of the world within the book and the world without may be demarcated is by margins—both white space around pictures and text, as well as by lines around either.
Two Bad Ants may be the most conventional third person narrative with omniscient narrator of any of Van Allsburg's books. The format declares as much, each illustration taking up the major portion of the page. The text appears in the same place below each picture and keeps the same margin. Additionally, this is the only book which has page numbers. In other words, this book says "I'm a fiction; you, dear reader, are outside—listen to the story teller; he knows all."
The Stranger, though certainly much more mysterious than Two Bad Ants, has illustrations on right hand pages, each the same size; each with identical and unbroken border. The text is on the facing left-hand page, surrounded by a double line. The double line puts the text in a frame—apart from the illustrations, apart from the reader. There is no missing the fact that one is reading a book "outside one's self"—and again, there are no page numbers fly-specking the page.
The Z Was Zapped is somewhat more intricate. The letters, as said before, appear on stage as characters in a drama, as announced on the title page. The proscenium juts, and each letter has a backdrop and is framed by a curtain. Beyond that, there is white margin. But not always! In some cases, as in the letters "L," "M," and "P," a shadow from the three-dimensional-appearing letter falls onto the white margin which is officially beyond the bounds of the illustration. The fine line between the world of the book and the world of the reader has been violated, and the two worlds meld into each other.
The Polar Express may be the most subtle blending of form and meaning of any of Van Allsburg's books. We have already spoken of the emphasis given the long journey by the horizontally elongated format of the book, as well as by the cutting off of top and bottom of trees and all tall items that are vertical. The illustrations begin close to either the left or the right hand margins and extend past the channel and well into the facing page. Only a two-and-a-half inch column of white is left down the side of the page for the text. The text, straightforward and matter-of-fact, runs part way down the narrow column. Although the illustration is framed in a black line that directly touches it, that black line is virtually invisible where it abuts the white column, and another (seemingly the same) black line frames the text within the same margin as the picture.
Enclosing text and illustration within the same margin erases the line distinguishing the world of the reader from the world of the writer, as well as the world of the sleeping child in the story from that of the waking child. Finally, too, the world of the narrator-adult ostensibly now telling the story (and believing in the imagination) is distinguished from the world of the child in which that same adult existed back then, when he lived and dreamed in the imagination.
General disorientation of the reader: Much has been said already about the manner in which the reader is disoriented by Van Allsburg's illusionistic devices of simulated three-dimensionality and his abrupt changes in perspective. At this point, let me add merely that such distortions and swooping perspectives may actually render up this artist's psychological truth. They may not be merely artistic devices. Van Allsburg, I have been told recently, will not fly in airplanes and prefers not to go above the second floor when he is on tour. If indeed Van Allsburg suffers vertigo, how suitable and psychologically economical to transform what might be a debility into a striking artistic signature!
Jumanji and The Garden of Abdul Gasazi are black and white; The Polar Express and The Wreck of the Zephyr are colored. Each makes the case for the reality of the imagination. Only in the case of the most recent book—the realistic, omniscient, conventional third person narrative of Two Bad Ants —is a measure of startling unfamiliarity achieved by the use of odd combinations of colors which we would not ordinarily associate with each other. That, in conjunction with the highly exaggerated, eccentric linearity, may well be a device to disassociate us and help us to see the world through the barely imaginable vision of an ant—a device used to dislocate us and to heighten the effect of the simple magnification of all objects, a magnification that, of course, is fully reasonable from the ant's point of view (literally).
My objective has been to attempt to understand how illustrated books mean. My test sample has been the nine books Chris Van Allsburg has produced in the last decade. All of Van Allsburg's books deal with illusion, but six of them seem to say that the waking world is as real as that of dream.
The artist-author, together with the book designer, can state his message clearly, simply, yet unobtrusively, by the felicitous exercise of his craft. By the way of that craft, perhaps a complicated metaphysical theory is made accessible to children, not discursively, but for immediate apprehension. Chris Van Allsburg, has done this through plot, illustrative devices, prose narrative, and book design.
How, then, does a picture book mean? It means by way of the many unique opportunities it affords a skilled author-artist such as Chris Van Allsburg. It means in a manner of which the viewer/reader is not necessarily aware—so it may mean subliminally, or even subversively. Finally, as do Van Allsburg's books, it may mean greatly—may make significant and complex statements about reality. And, all complexity notwithstanding, because of the unique opportunity its combination of the arts affords, the illustrated picture book may—non-discursively—bring extraordinarily complex or subtle understanding to even very young children.
I owe a great debt to Eleanor Cameron, who went over a version of my manuscript generously, patiently, and with a clear critical eye. Lapses that may remain likely are symptoms of occasional foolish stubbornness on my part.
Anno, Mitsumasa. Anno's Alphabet. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1975.
Kipling, Rudyard. Just So Stories. New York: New American Library, 1974.
Van Allsburg, Chris. Ben's Dream. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1982.
――――――. The Garden of Abdul Gasazi. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979.
――――――. Jumanji. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980.
――――――. The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984.
――――――. The Polar Express. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1985.
――――――. The Stranger. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986.
――――――. Two Bad Ants. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1988.
――――――. The Wreck of the Zephyr. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1983.
――――――. The Z Was Zapped. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.
Joseph Stanton (essay date 1996)
SOURCE: Stanton, Joseph. "The Dreaming Picture Books of Chris Van Allsburg." Children's Literature 24 (1996): 161-79.
[In the following essay, Stanton argues that Van Allsburg's picture books combine the high-art aesthetics of surrealism with the popular culture aesthetics of the "strangely enough" tale. Stanton states that, "[b]ecause Van Allsburg's surrealism is largely manifested in his images and the strangely-enough fantasy is primarily evident in his narratives, these two aspects of his work are largely complementary and do not conflict."]
The picture shows us a darkly lovely rendering of a Venetian canal with two tight rows of buildings facing each other across a narrow waterway. A small arched footbridge delicately links the two sides. But in the background towers a gigantic ocean liner crashing its way into the far end of the canal. On a facing page is the title of the image, "Missing in Venice," and a caption: "Even with her mighty engines in reverse, the ocean liner was pulled further and further into the canal." Here indeed is a mystery—and a mystery that remains unsolved, because the single picture with its title and caption are all we have. Chris Van Allsburg's collection The Mysteries of Harris Burdick is, in fact, a collection of fourteen unsolvable, but intriguingly captioned, mystery pictures. According to the tongue-in-cheek introduction, these images, along with their titles and captions, were left by a man supposedly named Harris Burdick with a children's book editor supposedly named Peter Wenders. Harris Burdick and the manuscripts for which each of the images is just a sample were, of course, never seen again, leaving us with fourteen inscrutable fragments.
In interviews Van Allsburg has resisted attempts to pin down the origins and purposes of his picture-story ideas. He has indicated that he, too, finds his books mysterious and cannot offer simple explanations as to where and how they originate.
A question I've been asked often is, "Where do your ideas come from?" I've given a variety of answers to this question, such as: "I steal them from the neighborhood kids," "I send away for them by mail order," and "They are beamed to me from outer space." It's not really my intention to be rude or smart-alecky. The fact is, I don't know where my ideas come from. Each story I've written starts out as a vague idea that seems to be going nowhere, then suddenly materializes as a completed concept. It almost seems like a discovery, as if the story was always there. The few elements I start out with are actually clues. If I figure out what they mean, I can discover the story that's waiting.
In this essay I do not promise to offer definitive solutions to the Harris Burdick mysteries or to any of the other bizarre fancies invented by the mind and art of Chris Van Allsburg. I shall, however, propose a theory concerning the traditions that lie behind his remarkable originality. Van Allsburg's work involves, it seems to me, the yoking together of two kinds of traditions that are almost never discussed together—a popular-culture tradition and an avant-garde, highmodernist tradition.1 The popular culture tradition I have in mind will be referred to as the strangelyenough tale. The high-art, experimental tradition is, of course, surrealism. It too often happens that the popular arts are completely boxed off from the high arts—more often as a result of academic specialization than of overt snobbery—but some of the greatest innovations in the arts come from the surprising mixing of the contents of various boxes.
Furthermore, because surrealism is a high art with a proclivity for the low, it is of particular importance to understand the ways surrealism can and does connect with popular culture. Also, one should appreciate that, despite the "pastness" of surrealism as a movement of the early to mid-twentieth century, the transaction between surrealism and popular culture continues and flows in both directions: the surrealistically inclined have always appropriated images from popular culture, and popular culture in such forms as magazine advertisements, department-store display windows, and rock videos have often borrowed surrealist procedures and appropriated well-known images from classic surrealist works. As we turn our attention to the children's picture-book genre, we should also bear in mind that, although surrealism is not ordinarily thought of as being aimed at an audience of children, much was made in Breton's manifestos, and in other primary surrealist documents, of the value of a "childlike" outlook. It is not, therefore, surprising that Van Allsburg, a university-trained fine-arts practitioner working in the popular children's picture-book form should fuse surrealist and pop-culture motifs. What is remarkable, of course, is the wonderfulness of his results. If we can gain some sense of the cultural sources that underlie his work, we can better appreciate his success, even as we allow his mysteries to remain more or less unsolved.
I begin with a discussion of the several books in which the surrealistic element in Van Allsburg's work can be most clearly seen. I then discuss books that incorporate strangely-enough tales, with attention to how surrealistic and strangely-enough elements coexist in several of Van Allsburg's most distinctive books.
The three books that I discuss as primary examples of the surrealistic tendencies in Van Allsburg's work are The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, Ben's Dream, and The Z Was Zapped. Because the term surrealism has been applied in so many ways, I must make clear that the surrealism I have in mind is not primarily the surrealism of André Breton and his closest associates. I am not thinking of automatic writing, found objects, random assortments, and frottages. The surrealism that embodies the irrational or unrational by relying upon the accidental would seem to have little to do with the meticulously designed and arranged works of Van Allsburg. The surrealism I refer to here is the secondary surrealism that derived sustenance, though not methodology, from the liberations effected by Breton and company. I have in mind Giorgio De Chirico,2 Yves Tanguy, Salvador Dali, Max Ernst and, most of all, René Magritte. It is, of course, terminologically problematic that these artists did not always fly the surrealist banner. What the works of these artists, as well as the works of Van Allsburg, have in common is that they contain "highly detailed likenesses of objects, straight or distorted, or three-dimensional abstractions, in a fantastic and unexpected juxtaposition, or in a setting of a hallucinatory kind" (Murray and Murray 402). This kind of surrealism constructs its dream images with a highly self-conscious sense of form and style. The content of the images may arise from the tapping of the subconscious, but the rendering of the work of art is realized with conscious finesse. Van Allsburg's surrealism is quite deliberate, as he himself has acknowledged: "If all artists were forced to wear a badge, I'd probably wear the badge of surrealism. I don't mean something as extreme as Salvador Dali's melting clocks, but a gentle surrealism with certain unsettling provocative elements" (Ruello 169).
Passionate attention to selected likenesses and the employment of unexpected juxtapositions are essen-tial to my three examples of Van Allsburg's surrealism. Perhaps the readiest way to recognize his affiliation with a certain kind of surrealism would be to compare the humorous stage-set images of The Z Was Zapped to certain stage-set images of René Magritte. Throughout his career Magritte employed the stage curtain and the shallow space of a stage as a compositional devise that gave a theatrical air to his images. The advantages of this performance-evoking strategy include the compositional attractiveness of this mode of display, the basic wittiness of making a static image into a dramatic action, and the effectiveness of this style of presentation as a means of heightening audience attention. Magritte works such as "Homage to Shakespeare" and "Wasted Effort" are particularly amusing in their interplay of landscape and stage-set elements. The metamorphosis of the stage-curtain shape into the fragment of sky that we see in both of these works is typical of the transformative play Magritte develops in much of his work. Things often turn into sky or stone in Magritte's pictures. Or shoes become feet or bottles become carrots. A complete catalog of Magritte's warpings of one thing into another would be a very long list indeed. Similar transformations could be noted in the works of many other modern artists (and even in the works of some artists from earlier eras), but the clarity and fastidiousness of Magritte's likenesses make him the surrealistic forerunner most obviously comparable to Van Allsburg.
In The Z Was Zapped many of the letters of the alphabet undergo transformations in keeping with an alliterative phrase utilizing the sound of the letter. Thus, we have "The E was slowly Evaporating" as the caption for an onstage E that is fading away at the top as it gives off steam. "The G was starting to Grow" shows rootlike appendages bursting out of the edges of a G. Similarly, a J is shown to be jittery, an M is melting, a V is vanishing, and a W is warped. Other letters are under attack in a variety of ways. The B was bitten, the C was cut to ribbons, the F was flattened by a gigantic foot, the K was kidnapped by gloved hands, the N was nailed, the P was pecked by a nasty-looking bird, the Q was quartered by a knife that hangs in mid-air without the support of a hand, the U was uprooted, the Y was yanked, and, of course, the Z was zapped. The natural elements play a role in beating up on the hapless alphabet: lightning zaps the Z, an avalanche falls on the A, and water soaks the S. In addition to the emphasis on absurd transformations of objects, the use of stage settings, and meticulous attention to appearances, Van Allsburg shares with Magritte a knack for witty presentation of body parts (hands and feet in particular) separated from the rest of the body. (The illustrations for F and K are of interest in this regard.) It is even possible that Van Allsburg, perhaps unconsciously, derived the idea for this book directly from a work by Magritte. Some of the letters that Magritte did as chapter headings for an edition of Lautreamont's Les chants de Maldoror are interestingly similar to Van Allsburg's letters. Particularly pertinent is Magritte's drawing of an R with an eagle's clawed foot reaching out on one side and a human hand on the other (Hubert 194-205).
The violence of Van Allsburg's alphabet no doubt comes as a surprise to many readers. The brutal way that many of the letters are destroyed or threatened hardly fits with conventional ideas concerning what is appropriate for small children; although superficially Van Allsburg's transformations may seem more ruthless than Magritte's, there is, however, an element of melodrama to Van Allsburg's staged destructions that makes them, ultimately, less unsettling than Magritte's. Although it seems odd that The Z Was Zapped, a book ostensibly to be shared with the youngest of children, is in several respects the least gentle of Van Allsburg's exercises in surrealism, it can be seen that Van Allsburg's "unsettling provocative elements" are held under control by our awareness that the artist-writer is having fun with his series of alphabetic horror shows.
Van Allsburg's The Z Was Zapped belongs to a genre of whimsical nonsense alphabets perhaps best represented by Walter Crane's The Absurd ABC, with its wonderful jumble of motifs from nursery rhymes and fairy tales, but it is the Magritte-like quality of Van Allsburg's ABCs that makes their absurdity distinctive.
Ben's Dream wears the badge of surrealism through the genuinely dreamlike nature of its narrative. Also suggestive of surrealism is its humorous display of famous monuments and buildings. A specific connection to surrealism can be found in the obvious echo of an image from Une semaine de bonté, a surrealist montage picture book by Max Ernst.3 Ernst's image of the Egyptian Sphinx seen through the window of a railroad car is reinvented by Van Allsburg in the image of the Sphinx seen from the front porch of Ben's floating house—in both images the head of the Sphinx is facing exactly the same way. It would not be surprising to hear that Van Allsburg was directly inspired by the example of Ernst's collage novel (Ernst 137). Beyond this specific reference, making famous buildings look ridiculous is entirely in the spirit of the surrealist project. It should be noted, however, that the punchline of Ben's Dream, which indicates that both the boy and the girl had dreamed the same dream, is suggestive of the strangely-enough motif. Also, although Ben's Dream can be seen to have derived from surrealism, it is too mildmannered, too gentle in its dreaming to be fully in tune with the disturbing ferocity of the great surrealist masterpieces.
Surrealist qualities of a more unsettling sort are to be found, however, in The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. Van Allsburg's startling intrusion of an ocean liner into a canal that I referred to at the beginning of this essay bears a family resemblance to the startling emergence of a train engine from a fireplace in Magritte's Time Transfixed. The playful joining of the ordinary to the extraordinary are specialities of both Magritte and Van Allsburg. Van Allsburg gives us an unexceptional suburban street where we discover one of the houses to be blasting off like a rocketship, whereas Magritte gives us a fish washed up on the shore that just happens to have legs where its tail should be. The Magritte resemblance has been suggested by other commentators on Van Allsburg's books. For instance, John Russell, reviewing The Wreck of the Zephyr, noted that "some of the images of flight are worthy of Magritte himself."
The literary aspect of the Harris Burdick book also has a rough equivalence in Magritte. Magritte made the naming of his paintings into a game separate from the making of his pictures. Much could be said about how this practice helped Magritte put forth the fiction that his pictures were not self-revelatory. Magritte often solicited his literary friends to make up names for his pictures, thereby ensuring a mysterious disjunction between the picture and its label. In one sense Van Allsburg self-consciously cultivates mystery through the puzzling labels he forces us to connect to the Harris Burdick pictures, but the stronger effect of the labels is to demystify the pictures, at least to some extent. Each caption implies a particular kind of story. There would no doubt be much more agreement between stories generated from Van Allsburg's captions than there would be between stories generated from Magritte's often-baffling titles.
The fourteen inscrutable fragments that make up The Mysteries of Harris Burdick are deft excursions into the fantastic that demonstrate the potential of the picture-book form for combining literary and pictorial means to produce powerful literary-pictorial ends. Perhaps not everyone would agree with me that The Mysteries of Harris Burdick is the best of Van Allsburg's many excellent picture books, but I think it is the best place to look for an understanding of his profoundly whimsical art. Composed as it is of fragments, Harris Burdick shows us the artist-writer at play in his workshop.
In this strange workshop, the subgenre that I am calling the strangely-enough tale plays a prominent part. The term strangely enough is taken from the title of a popular book of tales published by C. B. Colby in 1959.4 What made Colby's collection of strange stories exciting for twelve-year-olds of all ages was the attitude he adopted toward the material and expressed in his title. Colby managed to present his brief retellings of startling tales in a manner that suggested they might be true, despite their strangeness. Colby's journalistic plain style of writing was one of the elements that seemed to attest to the truth of the tales. Paradoxically, if Colby had been a better writer, his tales would have seemed more literary and thereby less real.5 The point is that Colby managed to make many of us want to believe that, strangely enough, something remarkable had really happened.
The only claim I am making here for Colby is that his work is typical of the genre and more enduring in its unpretentious appeal than many similar collections that have appeared over the years. Strangely Enough is primarily interesting as the most popular and widely distributed repackaging of contemporary oral tradition in the medium of print. Whether he knew it or not, Colby was a recorder of contemporary folk legends, primarily of the kind that Jan Harold Brunvand describes as "urban legends." Most of Colby's material appeared first in a newspaper column that he wrote for a number of years. His solicitation of tales for his column was his primary means of tale collection. The newspaper context has long been an important element in the spread and development of modern folk legends, because the inclusion of a tale in a publication dedicated to the reporting of fact tends to reinforce any assertion, however slight and whimsical, that the tale is possibly true.6
I have no idea whether Van Allsburg was directly influenced by Colby's book or by any of the numerous other books and comic books that have presented similar "strange tales," but it is apparent that several of Van Allsburg's books and all of the tales suggested in the fragments included in The Mysteries of Harris Burdick make use of the simple but powerful for-mula found in folk legends. In such tales there is an ordinary context out of which something extraordinary seems to develop. Journalistic versions of such tales tend to be brief and lacking in the histrionics common in oral presentations. Most such tales take no more than a page and a half to recount. The ordinary situation is explicated in a few paragraphs, then the extraordinary aspect is delivered as a kind of punchline. The understated manner of the telling in a newspaper context adds to the plausibility of the tales. Sometimes the situation seems to be falling short of the extraordinary until a chance remark by one of the characters betrays the almost dismissed extraordinariness.
Recognizing the relatedness of Van Allsburg's tales to the journalistic retelling of strangely-enough tales, as exemplified by Colby's Strangely Enough collection, provides a way of understanding the reason for Van Allsburg's peculiar flatness of delivery and brevity of exposition, which are among the most distinctive features of his story-telling style. In both Colby and Van Allsburg a flatness of tone and a terseness of narration reinforce the surface plausibility of the tale and stand in striking contrast to the bizarreness of what is taking place. Of course, a critical difference between Van Allsburg's tales and Colby's are the wonderful pictures that Van Allsburg employs to make us witnesses of the strange happenings. The startling contrast between Van Allsburg's dull, though carefully crafted, prose and his extraordinary images operates as a continuous irony. It is key to the tension between the ordinary and the marvelous that is his central subject.
The Garden of Abdul Gasazi is an excellent example of the strangely-enough plot and narrative strategy. In this tale, a little boy named Alan is asked to take care of his neighbor's dog.7 While Alan is walking the dog, the disobedient animal breaks away and heads into the mysterious garden of the magician Abdul Gasazi. Gasazi's abhorrence of dogs is posted on a sign that declares: "Absolutely, Positively no Dogs Allowed in this Garden." When the dismayed boy reaches Gasazi's house in the center of the garden, the dog is nowhere in sight. It turns out that Gasazi has either used his magic to transform the dog into a duck or played a clever joke on Alan. The rediscovery at the end of the book that the dog was in possession of Alan's hat, which had been stolen by the duck, sets up a final remark by the neighbor ("Why you bad dog," she said. "What are you doing with Alan's hat?"), which suggests, in fine, understated, strangely-enough fashion, that the extraordinary explanation is probably the right one.8
In Jumanji, Van Allsburg turns away somewhat from the popular-culture tradition of Colby and his kind and draws on the more self-consciously literary tradition that derives from the nineteenth-century weird tales of Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne, among others. This tradition has continued to enjoy vigorous life in contemporary works of literary fiction and in films. Among the many writers and filmmakers whose stories fit the mold of the strangelyenough tale are Alfred Hitchcock, Roald Dahl, Ray Bradbury, and Stephen King. The question of interconnections between the weird tales of the literary tradition and the weird tales collected by journalists (such as Colby) and scholarly folklorists (such as Jan Harold Brunvand) is a rich topic that has not been adequately addressed. For my purposes here it does not seem possible to cleanly separate the collected from the crafted with regard to influence on Van Allsburg; they are two sides of the same coin. Even the most carefully crafted of literary weird tales are aimed at popular audiences. Although the simplicity and blandness of Van Allsburg's narration of Jumanji suggest the collected tale, the twists of Jumanji 's little plot and the ironies it sets up recall, in certain respects, the tales of such popular modern storytellers as Dahl and Hitchcock. The grim little twist at the end, where the dangerous jungle game is found by two little boys who are well known for not following directions, is suggestive of one of Hitchcock's wittily gruesome, unhappy endings. But the somewhat more sophisticated feel of this tale does not conceal the strangely-enough mechanism.
Although I shall not discuss here all the varied graphic techniques Van Allsburg employed in his books, it should be observed that he has produced approximately one book a year since the appearance of his first book, The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, in 1979. For each of these yearly productions, his artistic procedures have changed. Each book is an experimental working out of design and material problems that Van Allsburg has set for himself. Underlying his structures and his choices of picture-making techniques is a sculptural sense that derives from his training and practice as a sculptor. Judging from remarks in recent interviews, Van Allsburg still seems to regard himself—even today, after all his years of success as a picture-book artist—as primarily a fine-arts sculptor who does picture books as something of a sideline. The scene in The Garden of Abdul Gasazi where Alan runs through the gate in the hedge to first enter the garden is one of many striking instances of sculptural form in Van Allsburg's work. In that scene, Alan and the two statues that border the gate seem to be three statuary variations on the theme "running boy." The gateway itself seems palpably sculptural. Even the separate leaves and blades of grass possess a certain amount of what philosopher of art Susanne Langer would call "kinetic volume" (Langer, 90). Each of these figurations seems static yet uncannily capable of operating in the viewer's space as well as in the virtual scene. This picture subtly suggests to the viewer that he or she might walk into it. The sculptural palpableness of some of Van Allsburg's pictures offers powerful reinforcement to the strangely-enough element in his work. We are drawn into the spaces of the garden of Abdul Gasazi not simply because his style is realistic but because his sculptural effects break down the barrier between our space and the space of the picture. Van Allsburg's sculptural effects in The Garden of Abdul Gasazi evoke a twilight-zone mood and have, at the same time, affinities with the sculptural dimensions of works by Dali, Magritte, and other surrealist artists. Thus, the strange tale of popular culture and the dream image of surrealistic modernism are fused in a peculiarly powerful way.
The Wreck of the Zephyr is perhaps the work most completely conceived in the strangely-enough manner. Recounters of such legends add credibility to their accounts by using the framing device of casting the narrator in the role of a visitor to a scene of fantastic events; there he or she encounters a person residing in the place who tells the tale that the narrator presumably does no more than record.9 There is a twist at the end of The Wreck of the Zephyr where we are left with the implication that the narrator was the boy protagonist of the tale he has just told. Van Allsburg sets up this turn of events well. Most readers are probably taken somewhat by surprise when the old man's limping walk and anxiousness to go sailing hint that he was once the boy who flew the Zephyr. As usual in the strangely-enough tale, the truth of the story rests on the presumed credibility of the speaker as an eyewitness.
The Wreck of the Zephyr represents a new direction in Van Allsburg's picture-book art, because it is his first venture into color. Later statements about his experiments with color indicate that he was dissatisfied with the technique he employed in this book. His efforts to blend pastels in ways that would create painted effects were apparently the source of some frustration for him. Whatever difficulties this book may have caused him seem to have been worth enduring; The Wreck of the Zephyr presents striking images that might not have been achievable in other ways. For instance, the luminescent greens of the ocean in the picture on the jacket of The Wreck of the Zephyr could not have been produced with the separate-strokes-of-color technique Van Allsburg used in The Stranger.
I have already cited John Russell's comment on the evident Magritte influence on The Wreck of the Zephyr. As with many Magritte images, several of Van Allsburg's pictures for this book present key elements as suspended or frozen within the scene. Thus, Van Allsburg's flying boats have an eerie silence and a seeming motionlessness that is reminiscent of the gigantic apples or rocks Magritte hangs over seascapes in such paintings as The Beautiful Truths or The Castle in the Pyrenees. Although we could also link the marine dreams of Van Allsburg with the dramatically lighted nineteenth-century luminist scenes of such artists as Fritz Hugh Lane and Martin Johnson Heade, the overall effect of these pictures is Magritte-like.
The best selling of Van Allsburg's picture books, The Polar Express, captures a strangely-enough motif that recurs in many forms in American popular culture. Van Allsburg's explanation of how this story came to him provides a fascinating glimpse into his way of imagining but provides little by way of interpretation.
When I began thinking about what became The Polar Express, I had a single image in mind: a young boy sees a train standing still in front of his house one night. The boy and I took a few different trips on that train, but we did not, in a figurative sense, go anywhere. Then I headed north, and I got the feeling that this time I'd picked the right direction, because the train kept rolling all the way to the North Pole. At that point the story seemed literally to present itself. Who lives at the North Pole? Undoubtedly a ceremony of some kind, a ceremony requiring a child, delivered by a train and would have to be named the Polar Express.
An image that might have been one of the Harris Burdick fragments was developed into a story that resolves itself into a kind of seasonal legend. Although the polar rite of winter around which the story revolves is a product of Van Allsburg's knack for developing fantasy rather than a conscious manipulation of an archetypal motif, the archetypal motif of this strangely-enough tale is not hard to spot. The argument of this tale is the heart-warming contention that "Yes, Virginia there is a Santa Claus." The movie Miracle on 34th Street is, of course, relevant here. The popular-culture nature of this tale makes it no less important than it would be if it were tricked out in the trappings of classical myth. The truth-pretense of the reality of Santa is perhaps the most widely distributed of all American strangely-enough motifs. Santa is the "flying saucer" that parents profess to believe in as an important game of ritual affection, gift giving, and seasonal celebration.
We might expect to lose the dangerous edge of surrealism in Van Allsburg's embrace of Jolly Old Saint Nick, but when we consider the intrusion of a massive train into a quiet suburban street, the restrainedly demonic nature of Van Allsburg's North Pole with its bizarrely vast snow-covered urban appearance, and the quietly nightmarish hugeness of the crowd of identically dressed elves turned out to hear Santa's speech—when we consider all the elements of this late-night sojourn—we find the surrealist edge of danger subtly implicit. It might even be said that there is something about the visualization of Santa's speech to his army of elves that is reminiscent of the famous filmed sequences of Hitler addressing his storm troopers. Although Santa is treated as an unambiguously benign being in the context of the book, there is an unsettling quality to the North Pole scene that adds an aesthetically interesting element of disorientation to the miraculous presence of the godlike Santa figure.
An even more mysterious mythos figures in the strangely-enough notion that lies at the center of The Stranger, a work that resonates on a number of levels. Visits by gods among mortals are commonplace in mythic traditions. Not identified as a powerful immortal, the god appears on someone's doorstep. Often such tales are moral fables concerning the importance of offering hospitality to strangers. Van Allsburg's tale certainly follows this pattern but adds the twist that the stranger in his book suffers from amnesia owing to a collision with a car whose driver afterward takes him into his home. The stranger's exact identity remains unexplained, but he is suggestive of Jack Frost, a being responsible for changing the season from warm summer to cool autumn and cold winter. Because of the stranger's amnesia, autumn does not come to the place where he has stopped. The farm family he stays with benefits from the prolonged warm weather that produces a bountiful harvest. Eventually the truth dawns on the stranger, and he departs to return to his appointed rounds.
Of course, as with Polar Express, we can link the story in The Stranger to a variety of popular works that share its basic strangely-enough premise. In a number of recent films a godlike personage intrudes into ordinary lives. Most often these beings are presented as aliens from other worlds, but they are typically given Christ-like qualities of spirituality and innocence, as well as certain amazing powers, that mark them as something above and beyond. The cult classic science fiction novel Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein, fits this profile, as do the films Starman, ET, Man Facing Southeast, Brother from Another Planet, Edward Scissorshands, and Wings of Desire. Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast provides a largely surrealistic version of this motif. In fact, a surrealistic undercurrent could be claimed for all of the films mentioned above. As always, questions of influence are difficult, but it seems that Van Allsburg's stranger is descended from the godly visitors of ancient stories and has some kinship with the extraterrestrial visitors of recent urban legends and the many films and books those legends have inspired.10
It is in the undercurrent of danger and the irrationality of the premise that we sense the surrealist dream developing within The Stranger. The strange creatures that invade the ordinary lives in Ernst's Une Semaine de bonté are perhaps gently echoed by the kindly, but indisputably supernatural, presence of the stranger in Van Allsburg's book. The lovely and uncompromisingly ordinary depiction of a somewhat sentimentalized and gorgeously autumnal rural world serves, however, to de-emphasize the surrealistic aspect of this quiet fantasy.11
The two dimensions of Chris Van Allsburg's work that I have discussed here—surrealism and strangely-enough fantasy—can be found in all of his books to varying degrees. Because Van Allsburg's surrealism is largely manifested in his images and the strangely-enough fantasy is primarily evident in his narratives, these two aspects of his work are largely complementary and do not conflict. Both surrealism and the popular tradition of the strange tale provide opportunities to show that the extraordinary resides in the ordinary and vice versa. Surrealism and the weird tale constitute two different but related ways that dreams intrude on everyday life, and Van Allsburg has learned lessons from both of these living traditions.
1. It may seem odd to speak of the tradition established in the name of an avant-garde style of art whose founding practitioners passionately declared themselves to be antitraditional, but it is undeniable that surrealism established stances and styles that have been continued and developed. By speaking of a tradition we are referring to the continuance of some of the ideas and forms of masters such as Magritte and Ernst in the contemporary works of artist-writers such as Van Allsburg.
2. Giorgio De Chirico could be considered a forerunner rather than a continuer of the surrealist movement. Some of his most surrealistic works predate Breton's founding of the movement. Chirico is one of those who did not like the term surrealism and did not consider himself a surrealist.
3. A large subject I cannot adequately address here is the important ways surrealist artists were themselves influenced by nineteenth-century children's picture books. It has been persuasively argued, for instance, that Max Ernst's Une semaine de bonté was influenced by Lewis Carroll's Alice books and their Tenniel illustrations (Wilson 364-71).
4. I wish to make clear that my adoption of Colby's title as the label for a genre of popular pseudo-nonfiction should not be taken as an unqualified tribute to the literary quality of his work. Certainly there was nothing particularly original about what he put together. Collections such as Colby's had been published before—notably R. DeWitt Miller's Impossible: Yet It Happened (1947). Miller's book purported to be a study of the paranormal, a claim that was to be repeated by scores of authors who contributed to the paranormal publishing industry that mushroomed in the 1970s and still prospers. A recent series of such collections by Robert Ellis Cahill sells well at various "spooky" tourist spots in New England. The roots of all this can be traced back to the nineteenth century. Some of the early experiments in photography involved the use of multiple exposures to insert ghosts and faeries into "true" photographs. Such hoaxes and wishful musings have been rife in the flying-saucer and Loch Ness-monster sub-genres as well. The superiority of Colby to De-Witt and many others, however, lies in the conciseness of his tale telling. Colby's Strangely Enough has maintained its popularity, I suspect, largely because its brief accounts spare the reader the often-pompous machinery of the typical paranormal author's explanation of his "field of research." Colby's stories, which have had numerous reprintings, are unencumbered folktales and provide the kind of pleasure any good story affords.
5. It could be argued that the more self-conscious storytelling style of Rod Serling, for instance, kept his published short stories from lingering in the mind with the peculiar aura of plausibility that inheres in Colby's tales. Serling did, of course, achieve a wide audience for his fictions, especially once he established his type of tale in the medium of television, but Serling's narratives seem to fill a different sort of niche in the popular imagination than do Colby's. With Serling we always knew that he was taking us into an artificial realm known as the "Twilight Zone," but with Colby the extraordinary events seemed to be things that had happened to genuine, though only sketchily characterized, ordinary people with whom Colby had talked.
6. It should be noted that journalistic accounts, even when they debunk the tales, serve to support the further spread of the legends. Published versions are disseminated informally through oral retellings. Tour-group leaders, for instance, often seize upon such anecdotes to entertain their customers. In Hawaii tour guides have gained wide audiences for their versions of such tales. On walking tours, the on-site nature of the tale telling enhances the strangely-enough effect of a story by adding the tangibility of observable buildings, streets, and landscape elements. Even when the conductors of these tours are academically trained scholars, the tales are seldom described as folk legends. It is much more fun for both teller and listener to subscribe to a strange-but-true approach to the material. Further, local tales are seldom related to larger archetypal motifs. For example, the reported tendency of Madame Pele, the volcano goddess, to hitchhike and then disappear from the car is never linked to the widespread legend of the "vanishing hitchhiker," which has been discussed by Jan Harold Brunvand in several of his books. The desire to consider the strange tale as possibly true tends to routinely overwhelm any attempt to debunk the tale. Brunvand claims, in fact, that debunkings merely serve to further the distribution of the tale (153).
7. The bull terrier that first appeared in The Garden of Abdul Gasazi developed into something of a game Van Allsburg plays with his loyal fans. This game involves the reappearance of the bull terrier in book after book; in many of the books the distinctive dog makes his appear-ance in an obscure corner of only one picture. This odd and amusing practice serves to link Van Allsburg's books to one another. The artist confesses to having enjoyed this find-me exercise. As he has pointed out, the dog is most difficult to find in The Stranger (Ruello 169). After The Z Was Zapped in 1987, however, this visual joke was dropped from his productions for the next three books; Two Bad Ants (1988), Just a Dream (1989), and The Wretched Stone (1991) are entirely dogless. The dog makes an amusing reappearance, however, in The Widow's Broom (1992) and can also be spotted in The Sweetest Fig (1993). It should be noted that his use of a repeated motif, which in popular culture would be called a "running gag," could be viewed as yet another resemblance to surrealist practice. Magritte, especially, is famed for the repeated appearances of his chess pieces, harness bells, men in bowler hats, and the like. Van Allsburg's overall opus is a unity that allows a playful weaving in and out of a pointless but interesting signature motif; this same element of play in serious art is a hallmark of much modernist art influenced by surrealism. The inclination toward playfulness is a key element in Van Allsburg's embrace of both popular culture and surrealism.
8. The value of noticing the strangely-enough plot of The Garden of Abdul Gasazi is amply testified to by the misinterpretations of plot action that are fallen into by Peter Neumeyer in a recent article on Van Allsburg that appeared in the Children's Literature Association Quarterly. Neumeyer insists upon oversimplifying the story by making it into a case of the protagonistfell-asleep-and-dreamed-an-adventure-and-then-woke-up ploy so common in the least imaginative children's books. It is, however, obviously the case that the boy wakes up and has the encounter with Gasazi in a waking state. After the adventure he returns to the house, missing the telltale hat. For the dream plot to be operative, the boy would have to be shown waking up at the end of the story. The strangely-enough plot provides a way of understanding the bizarreness of the tale without resorting to the unpersuasive leap to the it-was-just-a-dream explanation that Neumeyer felt he needed to give. In general, Neumeyer's article is flawed by his desire to render Van Allsburg's books as if they were coded messages rather than works of art. Because of Neumeyer's quest for "visual literacy," he fails to do justice to the magic and mystery of Van Allsburg's picture books.
9. This plot bears some resemblance to the plots of the many Japanese noh plays, in which a person from the particular place tells a tale of an earlier time. As in Van Allsburg's story, the teller is eventually discovered to be the character whose woes are being recounted. In noh plays this tale teller is usually a ghost.
10. The list of books and films cited here indicates a continuing theme in popular culture, in which Van Allsburg's The Stranger has played a part. Several of the films mentioned postdate Van Allsburg's book and are obviously not considered influences on Van Allsburg. Because the theme of the godlike stranger is so ancient and pervasive, it would be difficult to establish a sequence of influences.
11. The seasonal feeling of The Stranger is one of its especially attractive features. I can recall no other picture book more effective at rendering autumn and the harvest time. Van Allsburg's technique of painstakingly laying on tiny unblended lines using pastels provides him with excellent means to realize the bright subtleties of autumn colors. His attention to details—such as individual blades of grass in the foreground, separate dots for leaves in middle-ground trees, strokes suggestive of the grain of wooden floorboards, and attractively plausible stylizations to represent distant elements—results in a book that seems to love the look of its subject. Van Allsburg creates strong sculptural effects in several of the pictures in The Stranger, such as the soup-serving scene and the pumpkin-loading scene. For the most part, however, we are not compelled to enter the pictorial space as we are in The Garden of Abdul Gasazi. The images of The Stranger are separated from the audience by a haze of seasonal romance. The viewer is happy to step back and contemplate the seasonal display.
Brunvand, Jan Harold. The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings. New York: Norton, 1981. (Other Brunvand books include The Baby Train, The Choking Doberman, Curses! Broiled Again, and The Mexican Pet.)
Cahill, Robert Ellis. New England's Things That Go Bump in the Night. Peabody, Mass.: Chandler-Smith, 1989. (Other Cahill works include New England's Visitors from Outer Space and New England's Witches and Wizards.)
Colby, C. B. Strangely Enough! New York: Sterling, 1959.
Ernst, Max. Une semaine de bonté. 1934. Reprint. New York: Dover, 1976.
Heinlein, Robert. Stranger in a Strange Land. New York: Putnam, 1961.
Helprin, Mark. Swan Lake. Illus. by Chris Van Allsburg. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989.
Hubert, Renée Riese. Surrealism and the Book. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.
Langer, Susanne K. Feeling and Form. New York: Scribner's, 1953.
Lautreamont. Les chants de Maldoror. Trans. Alexis Lykiard. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1972.
Miller, R. DeWitt. Impossible: Yet It Happened! New York: Ace, 1947.
Murray, Peter, and Linda Murray. A Dictionary of Art and Artists. New York: Penguin, 1959.
Neumeyer, Peter. "How Picture Books Mean: The Case of Chris Van Allsburg." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 15, no. 1 (1990): 2-8.
Ruello, Catherine. "Chris Van Allsburg Interview." In Something about the Author, vol. 53, ed. by Anne Commire. Detroit: Gale Research, 1989. Pp. 160-72.
Russell, John. Review of The Wreck of the Zephyr, by Chris Van Allsburg. New York Times Book Review, June 5, 1983, 34.
Serling, Rod. From the Twilight Zone. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1960.
Van Allsburg, Chris. Ben's Dream. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1982.
――――――. The Garden of Abdul Gasazi. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979.
――――――. Jumanji. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981.
――――――. Just a Dream. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1990.
――――――. The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984.
――――――. The Polar Express. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1985.
――――――. The Stranger. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986.
――――――. Two Bad Ants. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1988.
――――――. The Widow's Broom. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1992.
――――――. The Wreck of the Zephyr. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1983.
――――――. The Wretched Stone. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991.
――――――. The Z Was Zapped. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.
Wilson, Sarah. "Max Ernst and England." In Max Ernst: A Retrospective, ed. Werner Spies. Munich: Prestel-Verlag, 1991. Pp. 363-72.
Other Works of Interest
Cummings, Pat, ed. Talking with Artists. New York: Macmillan, 1991. (Van Allsburg is one of the artists interviewed.)
Nodelman, Perry. Words about Pictures: The Narrative Art of Children's Picture Books. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1988.
THE GARDEN OF ABDUL GASAZI (1979)
Paul Heins (review date February 1980)
SOURCE: Heins, Paul. Review of The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, by Chris Van Allsburg. Horn Book Magazine 56, no. 1 (February 1980): 49-50.
[In The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, w]hen Fritz, the naughty dog, ran into the garden of Abdul Gasazi, a retired magician, Alan was terrified, for he knew that dogs were not allowed beyond the vine-covered wall. Fritz eluded Alan, who ultimately came to the magician's imposing house and politely requested the return of the dog. His request was granted, but Fritz, who had been turned into a duck, compounded his original naughtiness by flying away with Alan's cap. The story, which goes on to a tantalizing conclusion, serves essentially as an ambitious libretto for a series of carefully composed, technically expert pictures. Stippled tones of gray and precisely outlined figures generate three-dimensional sculptured and architectural forms. Monumental human beings as well as stylized structures are bathed in light and shade, and all of the illustrations suggest in effect the pointillism of Seurat. Consequently, boy and dog, magician and duck are singularly static, while the pictures are filled with a mystical kind of immobility. Decidedly not a picture book for young children but a large virtuoso production—mannered and bordering on the occult.
Publishers Weekly (review date 10 April 1981)
SOURCE: Review of Jumanji, by Chris Van Allsburg. Publishers Weekly 219, no. 15 (10 April 1981): 70.
Van Allsburg, whose art works are on exhibit in major museums, was honored with numerous awards for his extraordinary first book, The Garden of Abdul Gasazi. [Jumanji] is his second, a weird story illustrated by fabulously realistic drawings of surreal adventures, pictures that are so infinitely detailed in three dimensions that they appear to move, breathe and make sounds. Judy and Peter find a board game, Jumanji, with instructions that it must be finished or go on forever. The first move brings a lion roaring into the living room. In his terror, Peter still acts quickly, decoying the beast into a room and locking the door. Every ensuing move throws the brother and sister into more dangers as they pit themselves against the odds, a desperate try to win and banish the jungle. The artist holds back the thrilling result until the last word.
Pamela D. Pollack (review date May 1981)
SOURCE: Pollack, Pamela D. Review of Jumanji, by Chris Van Allsburg. School Library Journal 27, no. 9 (May 1981): 60.
Gr. 1-4—Jumanji is a jungle adventure board game come to life via the magic that, in Van Allsburg's world, is always waiting to leak into the everyday. With successive dice rolls, deepest, darkest Africa invades the neat, solid, formally arranged rooms of the unsuspecting players' house. The players—a blasé brother and sister home alone—are momentarily dumbstruck but not really upset. They steadfastly go on with the game as monkeys, grinning with a wicked gleam, raid the kitchen and hunker around the game board; rhinos charge intently through the living room (and right into one's line of vision); a Python coils on the mantel, its pattern set off by a leafy slipcover design to give a jungle camouflage effect. As in The Garden of Abdul Gasazi (Houghton, 1979), which Jumanji out-does in story terms, real and unreal rub shoulders in three-dimensional drawings extraordinary for the multiplicity of gray tones the artist achieves and the startling contrasts with brilliant white. The eye-fooling angles, looming shadows and shifting perspectives are worthy of Hitchcock, yet all these "special effects" are supplied with only a pencil.
Denise M. Wilms (review date 15 May 1981)
SOURCE: Wilms, Denise M. Review of Jumanji, by Chris Van Allsburg. Booklist 77, no. 18 (15 May 1981): 1258.
Jumanji is the mysterious, magical board game Peter and Judy discover in the park and bring home to relieve their boredom. Playing it unleashes a frightening jungle world in their midst, one that recedes only when the players reach the game's end. Van Allsburg's consummate draftsmanship creates stunning, velvet-flat, black-and-white scenes that are endlessly fascinating. Vistas of a familiar household world gone amok are seen from startling floor or ceiling perspectives that heighten the story's sense of slightly sinister suspense. The tone of the text lightens the sense of danger in a fantasy come true, but this remains a potent vision that lingers on and on.
Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 June 1981)
SOURCE: Review of Jumanji, by Chris Van Allsburg. Kirkus Reviews 49, no. 12 (15 June 1981): 737.
Without pictures, [Jumanji ] would be a fairly orthodox horror story for kids: a jungle board game, found in the park with ominous instructions, produces at each square the children land on whatever wild creature ("Lion attacks, move back two spaces") or natural disaster ("Monsoon season begins, lose one turn") is called for—until, beset, the two youngsters are throwing the dice wildly to reach the last square ("Jumanji, a city of golden buildings and towers") and free themselves of the jungle terror. This episode, however, is framed, in a conventional picture-book made, by their departing parents' injunction to "keep the house neat" and the parents' return, with guests, after the game is over and all is calm. A second sly jest provides the obligatory twist at the end: a guest's two children are returning from the park, discarded game in hand. What makes the pictures themselves problematic is: 1) the heavy load of portent present from the start (as in Van Allsburg's earlier The Garden of Abdul Gasazi ), which robs the book of a contrast between the normal, everyday and the macabre; 2) Van Allsburg's freeze-dry surrealism, which renders the turbulence as a static charade, or tableau; and 3) the paradox that imagined horror is more skin-prickling than horror seen—with a child's mouth agape. Van Allsburg's artistic skill seems largely confined to the devising of special effects—these largely dependent, in turn, on oversize close-ups and dramatic angles. Once their shock-value wears off, these are boring pictures—with no feel in particular (down to the inappropriately babyish toys) for a child's world.
THE MYSTERIES OF HARRIS BURDICK (1984)
Adrienne E. Gavin (essay date 2001)
SOURCE: Gavin, Adrienne E. "Enigma's Variation: The Puzzling Mysteries of Avi, Ellen Raskin, Diana Wynne Jones, and Chris Van Allsburg." In Mystery in Children's Literature: From the Rational to the Supernatural, edited by Adrienne E. Gavin, pp. 210-17. New York, N.Y.: Palgrave, 2001.
[In the following essay, Gavin examines several children's mystery books in terms of their innovative narratives, asserting that Van Allsburg's The Mysteries of Harris Burdick functions as a "postmodernist picture book."]
Formulaic mysteries are appropriate for child readers, it is sometimes claimed, not because formula fiction has its place in anyone's reading fare, but on the grounds that, as they read, children are learning about the mode of mystery writing itself. The young, it is implied, do not require nuanced, complex, or allusive mysteries. Similarly, it is asserted:
The researcher of children's literature cannot operate in the categories of 'originality, novelty, stylistic experiment' … as are applied to modern (that is, 20th century) adult literature. Devices and patterns that may seem to betoken lack of originality, plagiarism, secondarity, in adult literature are a deliberate creative approach in children's books.
(Nikolajeva, Magic, 118)
Comments like these, which are surprisingly common, have as their subtext a notion that in some way our expectations of children's literature can be 'lower' than our expectations of adult literature. While formulaic writing and derivativeness may be a 'deliberate creative approach' in some children's texts (as they are in some adult works), it is surely reductive to suggest that we should not expect stylistic experiment and originality in children's literature. This essay examines fiction by Avi, Ellen Raskin, Diana Wynne Jones, and Chris Van Allsburg in order to show the varieties of innovation and originality that are possible in children's mysteries.
Carol Billman describes three levels of sophistication in mystery writing for children. Child readers, she suggests, progress from the formula of fairy tales to formulaic mysteries like the Nancy Drew series which are 'conventional, rather than idiosyncratic or inventional' (32) and 'encourage what Tzvetan Todorov calls "metareading," a process by which "we note the methods of the … narrative instead of falling under its spell"' (33). They then move onto more sophisticated mysteries which are 'rooted in the "real" world' and contain 'equivocal rather than completely stereotyped characters' (39). In a third stage, she argues, children read more complex, less codified mysteries which overlap with other genres such as time travel fantasies or historical fiction. Her suggestion that child readers progress consecutively through these levels of mystery is overly schematic. Her admission, however, that mystery's 'best offerings, for whatever age, urge upon their readers [a] constant balancing of the mysterious and the recognized, of the unsettling unknown and the reassuring known' (37) stresses the enigmatic and puzzling elements of the most innovative mysteries for children.
Every mystery, whether formulaic or innovative, requires a secret which lies at its heart and which, by text's end, is either explained or left mysterious. Every mystery also involves the provocation of puzzling in characters and/or readers who are compelled to ponder over possible solutions to the mysteries presented. What distinguishes creative, innovative, and original mystery writing from the more formulaic and derivative is the presence of enigma. Enigma is defined in The Collins English Dictionary as 'a person, thing, or situation that is mysterious, puzzling, or ambiguous'. As 'mysterious' and 'puzzling' are already inherent within mystery, it is 'ambiguous' that is the key word here. Innovative children's mysteries contain ambiguity; within them there is a slippery indeterminacy of meaning and solution; something enigmatic and shifting lies at their core, making it impossible to reach absolute conclusions. They encourage puzzling that extends beyond the bounds of the plot and which connects with deeper mysteries of life and art, involving issues of identity, reality, and fictionality. As Joan Aiken suggests, '[t]hings not understood have a radiance of their own. It is a challenge to go back to them, to puzzle and puzzle' (45). As this essay shows, Avi's The Man Who Was Poe (1989), Raskin's The Westing Game (1978), Jones's Archer's Goon (1984), and Van Allsburg's The Mysteries of Harris Burdick (1984), each in its own enigmatic variation, reveals the possibilities of innovation and originality in children's mystery fiction.
At first glance Avi's The Man Who Was Poe might appear to be a formulaic detective mystery. The mother, aunt, and sister of Edmund, the central child character, have all disappeared in separate and mysterious circumstances; there has been a robbery of California gold from the Providence Bank; a dead woman's body is fished out of the water, and various characters are being trailed by other characters through the dark streets of Providence, Rhode Island in November 1848. A dark and mysterious stranger helps Edmund solve these mysteries, the criminals are revealed, the case seems closed. The case, however, is not closed and enigmatic questions remain to puzzle both the reader and Edmund.
Avi's innovation is to introduce into his historical detective novel that pre-eminent and originary detective created by Edgar Allan Poe, Auguste Dupin. In doing so he goes back to the origins of detective formula, but transforms that formula into something far less certain. Avi's Dupin is not a simple borrowing but a complex fictional construct who operates on occasion with the original Dupin's rational and clear-thinking powers of detection. At the same time, however, he is the alcoholic, death-obsessed Edgar Allan Poe himself. He tells Edmund that he is '"the man who was Poe. Now I am Dupin"' (143), but later says '"I'm no longer Auguste Dupin. I am the man who is Edgar—Allan—Poe"' (161). Avi's text uses intertextuality, metafictional elements, and circularity to create its enigma. It blurs distinctions between creator and created, fiction and reality, and 'Dupin-Poe' and Edmund.
The greater the knowledge a reader has of Poe's work and life the more intertextual significance that reader can see. By adding an appendix—'Something about Edgar Allan Poe'—and by weaving among the more arcane links some specific and explanatory references to Poe's work, Avi ensures, however, that even child readers who know nothing of Poe see mysterious interlinkings between the novel they are reading, Poe's life, and Poe's fictional creations. It is the metafictional qualities of the novel, however, that create most enigma. The mysterious Dupin-Poe (as I call him here, although in the novel he goes by both names severally) agrees to help the desperate Edgar solve the mystery of his missing family, which he Dupinesquely does. He also, however, Poe-like, uses the situation as material for a story he sketches out soon after meeting Edmund: 'Edmund … a boy … Missing sister … The sea—bringer of death … abandonment. Release/death … The … necessity … of death … The certainty of death' (30). Dupin-Poe's insistence on his story and the emphasis that story has on the inevitability of the death of Edmund's family members and especially his sister 'Sis'—whose name is the same as Dupin-Poe's late wife—deeply disturbs and horrifies Edmund who insists that his experience is real and that his sister is still alive and can be saved. The twisting together of 'real' and story puzzles both Dupin-Poe and Edmund. Dupin-Poe thinks to himself 'have I gone beyond the writing of words? Could I be writing this boy's life?' (56). Edmund is shocked when Poe refuses to help him find his mother and sister and instead writes his story: '"this isn't a story,"' he insists (161). Enraged at Dupin-Poe's saying Sis is dead, he tears up pages of the story and eventually has to battle physically free of Dupin-Poe to save his sister.
'Puzzling questions … are not beyond all conjecture,' Dupin-Poe thinks to himself when considering whether his characters have come to life (173). Such questions are not beyond conjecture, but they are, the novel reveals, beyond answers. DupinPoe leaves Edmund with just such a puzzling question on the final page of the novel when he asks him: '"I ask you: in what fashion will your sister live longer. In her life? Or, in this, my story that would have been?"' (198). The novel ends in ambivalence. The undestroyed scrap of his story that Dupin-Poe tosses to Edmund is the first paragraph of Avi's novel, with the name Edgar crossed out and the name Edmund added. This drives the reader circularly back to the start of the novel and also confirms the enigmatic nature of the puzzling questions the novel has raised but not answered about the parallels between DupinPoe and Edmund. Dupin-Poe notes that for a mystery 'to be effective [there] must be a puzzle' (80), and speaks of a '"puzzle which, if we could fully understand it would bring … truth"' (118). Yet he also claims: '"[l]ies have their own truth"' (144). Avi's novel raises postmodernist questions about truth and lies, life and fiction, and creates a sense of enigmatic mysteries which must be puzzled over but which cannot be solved.
Ellen Raskin's novel The Westing Game innovates mystery in different ways. It is overtly a puzzle mystery, designed as a game not just for readers but for the characters themselves who are desperately seeking the solutions to the clues they hold. The 16 heirs of the mysterious Sam Westing, directed by his will, motivated by thoughts of inheriting his two hundred million dollars, and working in teams of two, are trying to figure out who among them has murdered Westing. Each team has different clues and must come to solutions in its own way. Mystery piles upon mystery: Is any one a twin? Who plays chess? Who is exploding bombs? Was Westing murdered? Is he actually dead?
Raskin, as Peter Hunt states, is 'consistently experimental' in her work (150), and a Raskin mystery, as Constance B. Hieatt points out, 'is not of the common or garden variety. All of them offer more than the simple appeal of what Graham Greene calls "an entertainment"' (128). Her works are 'playful and fundamentally mysterious' in postmodern ways (McGillis 154). Billman classes The Westing Game as 'a mystery novel of the second degree of difficulty' (35). She demonstrates that the novel moves beyond formula in its use of an 'omniscient narrator [who] flits quickly from one character's mind to that of another' and in its lack of a central detective character (36). She does not, however, see enigma within the novel:
Raskin presents what readers know to be the familiar ingredients of mystery fiction—wills, detectives, clues, red herrings, even a potential corpse—and serves them up in a new and truly adventurous guessing game. Her variation is not, however, ultimately so lacking in clues for its unraveling as to stymie readers.
Billman claims that Raskin 'gives the necessary information to solve the ever shape-shifting crime' (38). This is partially true in that it does become clear to readers that Sam Westing, still alive, must be operating this extraordinary puzzle, but it is not true to say that readers can solve the mystery. The enigma at the heart of this novel is that its puzzle is so confusingly difficult that none of the players except Turtle Wexler ever completely solve it and most readers are unlikely to either without the novel's explanation. Mystery remains as to how all the intricate clues fit together. In a different way than Avi's, Raskin's novel also drives readers back to the beginning to re-look at clues. It also leaves open the question why Turtle does not ever tell anyone else that she has discovered Westing.
Raskin's mystery is innovative, too, in its acute and witty observation of characters' public facades and the private truths that lie beneath. She enters into the puzzling nature of human relationships. As the shin-kicking of Turtle, the highly decorated but unneeded crutches of Sydelle Pulaski, and the social-climbing and bigoted remarks of Grace Windsor Wexler reveal, the characters seek individual attention. Through their involvement in the Westing Game each finds a new and confident sense of themselves and they all go on to live out successfully the American dream that 'Uncle Sam' Westing has urged upon them.
Like Raskin's novel, Diana Wynne Jones's Archer's Goon makes use of humour which underneath contains darker puzzles. Like Avi's novel it makes use of metafictional techniques and of characters who have mysteriously mixed identities. As Maria Nikolajeva claims:
Diana Wynne Jones is an indisputable innovator, and in her books the hesitation principle is most tangible … The play with alternative worlds in [her] books becomes a discussion of existential questions: what is reality? Is there more than one definite truth?
Archer's Goon is a complex fantasy whose mystery begins with puzzling questions about who is intimidating Howard's father, the famous writer Quentin Sykes, and then moves on to more perplexing mysteries connected with identity, time, and the self.
The enigma at the heart of the novel is 13-year-old Howard himself. He begins with a stable self-identity and then is encompassed by a mysterious and threatening situation which destroys his sense of himself. His family live in a town which is secretly run by seven supernaturally powerful and giant siblings who have, gangster-like, divided up the town and corruptly 'farm' their patches. When Howard's father refuses to write his regular payment of two thousand new words for an unknown member of the giant family, Howard's own family are beset. A goon arrives and takes up residence in their house, music blares constantly, their road is dug up, their gas, electricity and banking are cut off, they are driven to borrow food, and a gang is ready to attack Howard and his sister, Awful, at any opportunity.
Howard tries to solve the mystery of which of the seven beings—Archer, Dillian, Shine, Torquil, Erskine, Hathaway, and Venturus—is causing these terrible problems for his family. In what Nikolajeva de-scribes as a 'paradigm shift' in fantasy structures (Magic, 117) and 'an identity variable which seems almost unique' (Magic, 117), Howard discovers that he himself is the 'criminal'. Tracking down Venturus, the last and youngest giant sibling, who lives in the future, Howard discovers that he is Venturus. He discovers, too, that his giant siblings have been trapped in the town and prevented from moving beyond it to 'farm' the rest of the world, not by Quentin Sykes's words as they had believed, but by Venturus himself who has muddled with time in order to perfect his spaceship. He learns that, because of this, everyone has lived through two repeated sets of 13 years and might be entering into a third identical loop if he does not act to stop his Venturus self.
In her analysis of some other Jones novels, Margaret Rumbold points to the shifting selves in Jones's work and to her use of 'multiple signifiers to reflect the heterogeneous nature of the subject' (22). She suggests that within Jones's Hexwood (1993) 'selfhood remains essentially enigmatic (at times arbitrary) and cannot be nailed down' (25). This is also true of Archer's Goon in which Howard-Venturus's self is the central enigma which is never fully solved. Learning that he is Venturus both horrifies and embarrasses Howard. He feels his magical powers coming upon him, but knows, too, that this third time through life: 'he [will] have to bring himself up not to be Venturus' (241).
Howard acts to rid the world of the three older giant siblings and in a wonderfully metafictional scene in which observing characters run from window to type-writer to see the same scene unfold, his father finally writes the requested words which, as they are typed onto the page, force the greedy older siblings into Venturus's spaceship, to be shot far into the universe. In Jones's novel 'good and evil are no longer absolute categories' (Nikolajeva, Children's, 74). The Goon, for example, changes from being a knife-throwing threat, to being virtually a part of the Sykes family, to revealing himself as Erskine and imprisoning the family, to emerge at the end a loved family friend. Jones's novel innovates through the extremely complex position in which it places its protagonist as both solver of and source of mystery, and ends with an indeterminate future ahead for Howard-Venturus.
Most puzzling and mysterious of all the texts discussed here is Chris Van Allsburg's postmodernist picture book The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. At the time it was published it was, as John Rowe Townsend notes, 'the enigmatic Van Allsburg's most enigmatic book so far' (329). The book contains 14 discrete and apparently unconnected black and white illustrations, each accompanied by a title and a caption. Van Allsburg claims in his introduction (interestingly written from the Providence, Rhode Island setting of Avi's novel) that these drawings had been handed to him by a retired children's publisher, one Peter Wenders. Wenders told him, he recounts, that they had been drawn thirty years earlier by a man named Harris Burdick who had brought them in to Wenders as samples to gauge his publishing interest in 14 different stories. Having left the drawings with Wenders, 'Harris Burdick was never heard from again … To this day Harris Burdick remains a complete mystery' ('Introduction', n.p.). Burdick's disappearance, Roderick McGillis suggests, 'serves to remind us of the supposed "death of the author" in postmodern art' (154). It also suggests the missing person or body that supplies the impetus to much detective mystery or the fleeting appearance of a ghostly being in supernatural mystery.
Apart from the claims about their mysterious origins, which raises postmodernist questions about truth and fiction, the drawings are in themselves mysterious. Their blackness and whiteness is shaded and slightly indistinct; edges are blurred, creating images of dreamscape. They hint at magic and are uncanny, strange, and eerie in effect. They depict puzzling or impossible things such as a chair with a nun in it flying through a cathedral, or a bird flying off bird-patterned wallpaper. As McGillis puts it, 'they "unclose" [rather than disclose] their meaning, keeping it always mysterious and relative' (154). They disrupt 'expectations based on [the mystery story] genre' by not providing solutions (McGillis 154).
The book encourages readings of different types of mystery: the magical, the frightening, the natural, and the fantastic, and the captions heighten mystery further. Providing clues to the stories behind the drawings, they serve to mystify through their provocative nature. The title 'Archie Smith, Boy Wonder', for example, is captioned 'A tiny voice asked, "Is he the one?"' while 'Another Place, Another Time' is captioned 'If there was an answer, he'd find it there.' Each title and caption raises more questions than it answers.
David Lewis, discussing indeterminacy within post-modernist picture books, suggests that
when we have too little information, we often find that issues within a story which we would normally expect to have resolved are in fact undecid-able … outcomes are left unresolved or relationships remain permanently unclear.
Van Allsburg's book is a perfect example of such indeterminacy. Each illustration is in itself an enigma, its mystery unsolvable and its readers left puzzling. As the back cover of the book states 'the puzzles, the mysteries, presented by these drawings, are not what we are used to. They are not solved for us … The solutions to these mysteries lie … in our imagination.'
McGillis suggests that the '"perfect lift-off" in the final illustration … suggests a departure from the known to the unknown' (68-9). In its plotlessness and indeterminacy Van Allsburg's book clearly moves into 'the unknown', as far from the 'rational', solved world of early detective mysteries as it is perhaps possible to go. He is not alone in this move towards inexplicable mystery. Meena G. Khorana notes that within the work of the nominees for the 1998 Hans Christian Andersen Illustrator Award a common motif is 'the evocation of a mysterious, haunting atmosphere by combining magical and realistic elements' (3).
Collocates of the word mystery such as 'wrapped', 'shrouded', or 'cloaked' suggest something covered-up and secret. In formulaic mysteries the cloak, shroud, or wrapper is removed, exposing what lies beneath. In innovative mysteries such as those by Avi, Raskin, Jones, and Van Allsburg the wrapper or cloak remains in place. It perhaps lifts slightly on rare glimpsing occasions or is seen through dimly when the light is at strange angles, but what is beneath is never clearly revealed. Each of the texts discussed here creates an enigma that cannot be solved and that stimulates readers' puzzlement beyond the bounds of any outline plot. In creating that enigma, these authors use postmodernist techniques such as intertextuality, indeterminacy, and incomplete solutions and introduce metafictional elements. In this way their variations on mysteries sustain puzzles, insist that some mysteries are inexplicable, and reveal the innovative and non-formulaic possibilities of mystery literature for children.
Aiken, Joan. 'A Thread of Mystery', Children's Literature in Education, 2 (1970): 30-47.
Avi. The Man Who Was Poe . New York: Avon Books, 1997.
Billman, Carol. 'The Child Reader as Sleuth', Children's Literature in Education, 15 (1)  (1984): 30-41.
Hieatt, Constance B. 'The Mystery of Figgs & Phantoms', Children's Literature, 13 (1985): 128-38.
Hunt, Peter. An Introduction to Children's Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Jones, Diana Wynne. Archer's Goon. London: Methuen, 1984.
Khorana, Meena G. 'To the Reader', Bookbird, 36 (3) (1998): 2-4.
Lewis, David. 'The Constructedness of Texts: Picture Books and the Metafictive', in Sheila Egoff, Gordon Stubbs, Ralph Ashley, and Wendy Sutton (eds), Only Connect: Readings on Children's Literature, 3rd edn. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1996, pp. 259-75.
McGillis, Roderick. The Nimble Reader: Literary Theory and Children's Literature. New York: Twayne, 1996.
Nikolajeva, Maria. Children's Literature Comes of Age: Towards a New Aesthetic. New York and London: Garland, 1996.
――――――. The Magic Code: The Use of Magical Patterns in Fantasy for Children. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiskell International, 1988.
Raskin, Ellen. The Westing Game . New York: Puffin, 1997.
Rumbold, Margaret. 'Taking the Subject Further', Papers, 7 (2) (1997): 16-28.
Townsend, John Rowe. Written for Children: An Outline of English-Language Children's Literature, 6th edn. London: Bodley Head, 1995.
Van Allsburg, Chris. The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. London: Andersen Press, 1984.
Sheri McDonald and Sally Rasch (review date May 2004)
SOURCE: McDonald, Sheri, and Sally Rasch. Review of The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, by Chris Van Allsburg. Book Links 13, no. 5 (May 2004): 44.
Gr. 2-6—In this fictional picture book, [The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, ] readers are told that a man named Harris Burdick wanted to publish books based on his mysterious drawings, but never returned to the publisher's office. The drawings and accompanying captions are open-ended, leaving the reader to ponder each mystery. Besides writing about one of the scenes, students could brainstorm vocabulary that describes the moods and feelings represented by the drawings, as well as discuss how setting and characters develop in narrative writing.
THE POLAR EXPRESS (1985)
Marilyn Carpenter (review date 8 December 1985)
SOURCE: Carpenter, Marilyn. Review of The Polar Express, by Chris Van Allsburg. Los Angeles Times Book Review (8 December 1985): 4.
The Polar Express, by Chris Van Allsburg is an original fantasy that unfolds as a reminiscence of a boyhood adventure. One Christmas Eve a boy wakes to find a passenger train outside his window. It is the Polar Express, full of children going to the North Pole to see Santa and his elves. The story contains drama and magic that children will love. There is a mythical Santa, a magnificent train, energetic reindeer, and snow-painted landscapes. The boy receives a bell from Santa that only rings for those who believe in him. Its beautiful sound is more precious to the boy than any other gift. This theme of wonder and belief in the magic of Christmas is refreshing in a time when children want more, more, more. Van Allsburg is a master at creating memorable illustrations dramatized with rich, dark colors and illuminated by spots of bright light. He achieves a mysterious, magical tone with his art that echoes and expands the story's wondrous theme.
THE STRANGER (1986)
Patricia Austin (review date April-May 2003)
SOURCE: Austin, Patricia. Review of The Stranger, by Chris Van Allsburg. Book Links 12, no. 5 (April-May 2003): 34.
Gr. 1-4—When Farmer Bailey accidentally hits a man with his truck [in The Stranger ], he invites the stranger into the house. The man cannot remember who he is, and the family assumes he's "some kind of hermit." Young readers can be encouraged to mine the text and art for clues that reveal the stranger's identity.
Sheri McDonald and Sally Rasch (review date May 2004)
SOURCE: McDonald, Sheri, and Sally Rasch. Review of The Stranger, by Chris Van Allsburg. Book Links 13, no. 5 (May 2004): 44.
Gr. 2-6—Farmer Bailey hits a mysterious stranger with his truck and brings him home to recover [in The Stranger ]. Many unusual events happen while the stranger is on the farm. Readers can try to determine the identity of the stranger by using the character clues offered in the open-ended story line.
THE Z WAS ZAPPED: A PLAY IN TWENTY-SIX ACTS (1987)
Phyllis G. Sidersky (review date February 1988)
SOURCE: Sidersky, Phyllis G. Review of The Z Was Zapped: A Play in Twenty-Six Acts, by Chris Van Allsburg. Childhood Education 64, no. 3 (February 1988): 174-75.
The letters of the alphabet are depicted as performers appearing on stage in The Z Was Zapped: A Play in Twenty-Six Acts ]. Each letter deals with a disaster; e.g., "The B was badly bitten." The dark pencil drawings are well suited to the mood, which is somber and mysterious. This is not an alphabet for preschoolers. It would be useful, however in a sketching class or, as in The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, a good stimulus for creative writing. Ages 8-14.
Patricia Austin (review date April-May 2003)
SOURCE: Austin, Patricia. Review of The Z Was Zapped: A Play in Twenty-Six Acts, by Chris Van Allsburg. Book Links 12, no. 5 (April-May 2003): 33.
K-Gr. 3—The title page [of The Z Was Zapped: A Play in Twenty-Six Acts ], which looks like a playbill, announces, "The Alphabet Theatre Proudly Presents The Z Was Zapped, A Play in Twenty-Six Acts," beckoning the child to guess what mishaps the letters have suffered. Such scenes as "The I was nicely iced," "The J was rather jittery," and "The W was oddly warped" go beyond the usual fare of vocabulary in alphabet books.
TWO BAD ANTS (1988)
Elizabeth A. Ford (essay date 1989)
SOURCE: Ford, Elizabeth A. "Resurrection Twins: Visual Implications in Two Bad Ants." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 15, no. 1 (1989): 8-10.
[In the following essay, Ford asserts that the visual implications of the illustrations in Van Allsburg's Two Bad Ants send a "mixed message" that contrasts with the written text of the story.]
Few would deny the visual impact of the illustrations Chris Van Allsburg has created for his books. His most effective works, like the sculptural black and white illustrations for Jumanji, Van Allsburg's 1982 Caldecott medal winner, and the dizzying perspectives of his Polar Express (1986), make it clear that Van Allsburg is following a path of personal iconography and offering readers much visual magic along the way. In his best works, his illustrations do what good illustrations should do, according to Maurice Sendak; they create a "marriage" between text and picture, not only describing, but also extending what is written.1 His 1988 offering, Two Bad Ants, which has a stylish power of its own, takes the next step on that path, but also gives some troubling hints suggesting where Van Allsburg's vision may be leading him and his readers. In Two Bad Ants the illustrations do more than extend the written word. They create a subtext; they tell another story.
The text offers a simple plot in Two Bad Ants. The queen of an ant colony tastes sugar and quickly orders her scouts out on a mission to find and bring back more. On this quest, which is successful, two bad ants go AWOL, opting for sugary satiation in a suburban sugarbowl instead of duty. Their gluttony is punished by near extinction as they meet with every disaster a kitchen can produce. They are almost boiled, nearly drowned, partially cooked and finally electrified. They do escape and gratefully return to their own world, apparently happy to conform if conformity means survival.
The quality of the illustrations accompanying this cautionary tale is high. The low-in-tone flat wash backgrounds and masterly line drawings are evidence of Van Allsburg's considerable talents, which he obviously enjoyed applying to this story. He exploits size and perspective—an approach that has become a trademark—to create a most effective ant view of the human world, transforming the familiar, via ant-eye, into the unexpected. This device gets an instant response from small readers. The two five-year-olds I shared the book with were entranced by visual proof that a human mouth could look like a cave to the two ants afloat in a cup of coffee (18-19). The lighting is equally effective. The unearthly glow that partially illuminates the darkness of the ant world contrasts nicely with the harsh brightness of the kitchen. Technique is not the problem here; implication is. More than perspective is being exploited and another kind of illumination infuses these images.
The illustrations suggest a message that is never stated but that is easily divined by any reader. In his review of Two Bad Ants, Sanford Schwartz stalks the ambiguity created by the leap between text and page, but never identifies or discusses it. Schwartz's main complaint is that the work seems unfinished, but he does raise a more problematic issue without defining it, first claiming that: "The best thing about Two Bad Ants is that it makes you appreciate, perhaps even like, ants. Mr. Van Allsburg's creatures are beautifully shaped…. They're like Bugatti roadsters" (63).
Later, however, Schwartz complains that the ants have no personalities, are "little nothings who are brutalized one morning and learn the dreary message 'you should go home again'" (63). I don't think Mr. Schwarz, or any reader and looker, can have it both ways. The tension between ant as likeable object—not living being—and ant as living object of abuse must be resolved. Schwartz's choice of diction, if not his assertions, shows that he knows this. His apt and revealing comparison of Van Allsburg's ants to sports cars glosses his claim that Two Bad Ants might make readers "appreciate" ants. Visually, these ants are clearly mechanized things, as cars are things, and although one can like a car, the appreciation of objects is surely different than affection for living beings. Although few can be expected to like ants—as if by common consent they have been placed on some lower rung of animate life—it seems dangerous to encourage the notion that they are things, as it would seem inappropriate to encourage this view of any living creature.
If the text does not, the illustrations for Two Bad Ants do encourage a desensitized view of ants (and therefore all insects?). The first evidence of this is in Van Allsburg's use of perspective. At the beginning of the tale, which is told in a straightforward manner, the ants in the illustrations are larger than life, lords of their own world. The first illustration of an enormous scout carrying back a magnified crystal of sugar makes his discovery seem as significant as Prometheus bringing fire to man—Van Allsburg is not humorless (4). The next plate offers a majestic view of the queen ant tasting the crystal (5). A close up drawing of her head and parts of her wing and body fill the image area; readers can only guess how large she really is, and her power is nicely implied by her size: she is too big to fit upon the page. Although smaller than she is, her ant scouts are still clearly at home in their surroundings, not dwarfed by them. As long as the ants stay where they belong, they are pictured as beings in control. After they crawl in through the kitchen window, however, they are dramatically reduced by the human context in which they are placed. Of course ants are small and must look small in relation to the kitchen appliances, but the visual message carries another layer of meaning.
Because they are smaller, the two bad ant "things" are easily cut down to size by the powerful world of bigger, mechanized things, things that must be operated by a human agent. Van Allsburg chooses to focus on the human inhabiting the kitchen only once; a mouth and the end of a nose appear over the rim of a coffee cup to form the treacherous cave the ants fear. But if humans do not often appear, they are evident by implication. Someone must spoon up the sugar, operate the toaster, turn on the disposal. Close-ups in the kitchen seem to be through the anonymous human's eyes. These are no longer enlarged views of ants in action, but windows through which the ants' ordeal is seen. Van Allsburg's game is to close in on the ants as they are tortured, and this seems particularly manipulative because of the attitude towards their experience that is encouraged.
The illustration before the ants' first negative experience—a swim in hot coffee—shows the beginning of their fall from the sugarbowl into the "boiling brown lake" (shades of Paradise Lost?) (17). The text ac companying the two-page illustration showing their immersion in the coffee explains that this is a traumatic experience, not just a swim: "crushing waves fell over the ants. They paddled hard to keep their tiny heads above water" (18). But the five-year-olds to whom I read the book laughed gleefully at the ants' predicament, and their response was very definitely to the illustration: a reader's response to picture more than word. This illustration is designed to be laughed at. The ants look amazed to find themselves in the cup which becomes a large body of water for them, but they do not seem to be affected by the temperature or the motion of the coffee "waves." It is funny to see the ants bobbing in the coffee, feelers erect, apparently undamaged. My small friends equally enjoyed the ants' descent into the hell of the toaster and subsequent pop up. Even though the text explains that the toaster was becoming "unbearably hot," the illustration does not interpret this as a painful experience. The ants seem to be having a great time bouncing on the toast as if it is a trampoline.
The most popular illustration, according to my friends' reaction, is the one showing the ants' spin in the garbage disposal. There the ants are, whirling in a melee of garbage, looking like refugees from the twister sequence in The Wizard of Oz. Again, the text gives some weight to their experience, claiming they emerge "bruised and dizzy" from the "whirling storm of shredded food and stinging rain" (27). The illustration, however, demonstrates that they are undamaged figures of fun. One of the ants even appears to be smiling as he whirls upside down in the disposal. The damage the ants sustain as a result of all these traumatizing occurrences is minimal. Their antennae are cutely bent after their final ordeal when they are shot from an electrical socket by the strength of the current, "speed" lines indicating the force of their trajectory. Van Allsburg comments that the ants are "stunned senseless and blown out of holes like bullets from a gun" (29). He also explains that they must rest, but all damage from this episode is put to rights quickly in the illustrations, for the ants are perky, and their antennae are fine in the next plate as they return home (30-31).
My two readers responded to my questions about the story and pictures by explaining to me that the two ants were bad to come in the house and that funny things happened to punish them, but that they went home "without hurts." Clearly they got the visual message that the ants were impervious to all ordeals.
Van Allsburg's illustrations may make children laugh, but some joyless truths are being served up with the smiles: ants are indestructible. You can do anything to them, and they will bounce back unscathed. It is fun to watch them being boiled, minced and electrified because they are just things, "like Bugatti roadsters," too little to matter. How, and to what other living things will these "truths" be applied? The concept of punishment presented by these illustrations is very different than the violence meted out in traditional literature, where the connection between evil and retribution is usually made very clear, and where the truths dealt with are universal.
The violence of these images seems reminiscent of, and perhaps more dangerous than, the violence delivered by a whole cartoon genre of which the "Road Runner" is the most familiar example. The punch line of each of these cartoons has always been the extinction and resurrection of Wiley Coyote. When burnt to a crisp he would regenerate, when hammered flat he would rebound, when dismembered, he would reassemble. These tasteless sages of pain are considered to be unfit for small viewers by enlightened parents and teachers. Here, however, are a new pair even better at resurrection, for they come unabashed and unmarked through terrors that would instantly kill real ants. The violence is the same, and children still get the punchline, but the packaging is very different, even entrancing. This expensively produced book, created by an author who is considered "a popular phenomenon" (Bader 298), is surely acceptable reading and viewing, ranking with other prestigious works for children.
Two Bad Ants seems an uneasy contemporary for the 1988 Newbery medal winning Joyful Noise by Paul Fleischman, for Fleischman's collection of poetry celebrates the variety, complexity and beauty of the insect world. Insects smaller than ants speak, giving voice to realities of their existence, and Eric Beddows's illustrations speak with the same joy. Although it is encouraging that the same year's output contains these widely divergent views, I think all of us know which book will be the most popular; Fleischman's and Beddows's work is much greater in concept but quieter in presentation, while Van Allsburg's book has a more obvious appeal.
Van Allsburg's special talent for presenting new perspectives heightens his attraction. The drawings of these indestructible ants, perhaps more than the written narrative of their adventures, will stay with young readers when the book is returned to the shelf because the images are a story in themselves, a subtext superimposed upon the text. My analysis of these drawings cannot answer the question, "What should illustration do?", but it can begin formulating an answer by commenting on what Van Allsburg's illustrations are doing.
In Two Bad Ants, instead of extending the text, offering what Sendak calls a "juxtaposition of picture and word," a "marriage" (Cott ix), the illustrations create a divorce at the most crucial level of meaning; Van Allsburg says one thing and draws another. What he says is that the ants' experience is real. What he draws is a world in which this is not so. No one would want Van Allsburg not to draw whatever he desires, but in a world becoming daily more conscious of the importance of all earth-dwellers—even those as small as two bad ants—he should be aware of the mixed message he is sending.2
1. Maurice Sendak discusses the connection between drawing and text in his dialogue with Jonathan Cott which introduces Cott's edition of Victorian Color Picture Books (See Jill May's apt review of this reference work in the Spring 1988 issue of Children's Literature Association Quarterly, 39). Sendak is speaking specifically about the darkness in Randolph Caldecott's work when he says, "something hurts. Like a shadow passing over very quickly. And it is this which gives a Caldecott book—however frothy in its rhythms, verse and pictures—an unexpected depth at any given point within the work, and its special value" (xi). His fascination with the "shadow" is surely, however, an apologia for his own work, and certainly offers a perspective on Van Allsburg, in which the element of "shadow" is increasing.
2. Anyone who doubts the strength of the violence beneath the surface of Van Allsburg's work should also look at The Z Was Zapped in which the letters of the alphabet are systematically destroyed. This is, of course, less troubling than the violence done to the "living" protagonists in Two Bad Ants.
Bader, Barbara. "The Caldecott Spectrum," Newbery and Caldecott Medal Books, 1975–1985. Lee Kingman, Editor. Boston: Horn Book, 1985.
Cott, Jonathan. "A Dialogue with Maurice Sendak," Victorian Color Picture Books. New York: Chelsea House, 1983.
Fleischman, Paul. Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices. New York: Harper and Row, 1988.
Schwartz, Sanford. "Felons in the Sugar Bowl," New York Times Book Review. November 8, 1988, 63.
Van Allsburg, Chris. Two Bad Ants. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1988.
――――――. The Z Was Zapped. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.
JUST A DREAM (1990)
Gail Goss (review date June-July 2001)
SOURCE: Goss, Gail. Review of Just a Dream, by Chris Van Allsburg. Book Links 10, no. 6 (June-July 2001): 44.
Preschool-Gr. 3—Walter doesn't treat the earth with respect [in Just a Dream ], choosing to throw trash on the ground and not recycle. Then Walter's bed travels in his dream into an over-crowded and polluted future. The dream inspires him to plant and care for a tree so that he might help prevent such a future.
Lee Bock (review date February 2003)
SOURCE: Bock, Lee. Review of Just a Dream, by Chris Van Allsburg. School Library Journal 49, no. 2 (February 2003): 97.
Gr. 2-5—Careless about the environment, Walter imagines an earth without trees [in Just a Dream ], littered with trash, and the air terribly polluted-is this the world of the future or only a dream? Masterful, full-page illustrations feature luminescent, surreal paintings.
THE WRETCHED STONE (1991)
Ellen Fader (review date January 1992)
SOURCE: Fader, Ellen. Review of The Wretched Stone, by Chris Van Allsburg. Horn Book Magazine 68, no. 1 (January 1992): 62-4.
The unusual literary device of a ship's log chronicles the astonishing events that occur during the last voyage of the Rita Anne [in The Wretched Stone ]. All the initial signs are favorable; pleasant weather at the beginning is a good omen, and the captain is impressed by his literate crew. Many enjoy borrowing books from his library, and some are accomplished storytellers. One month into the journey, an uncharted island is explored with an eye to finding water and fresh fruit, but the island is not hospitable. Instead, the captain brings aboard a strange, heavy object; one surface of the rock is flat and glassy and emits a "glowing light that is quite beautiful and pleasing to look at." After a week, the crew's strange, obsessive behavior convinces the captain that the men have contracted a fever from the rock, and he plans to have it thrown overboard. A trip into the hold, where the sailors have barricaded themselves with the stone, reveals a macabre sight: the men have turned into grinning monkeys, and they are unable to understand their captain's words. After a lightning storm disables the stone, the captain discovers that when he reads to the sailors, they recover some of their alertness; in fact, "those who knew how to read recovered most quickly." Even so, the crew will never be quite the same again: the sailors seem to have developed an "unnatural appetite" for bananas. Although Van Allsburg clearly has a message to convey, he has added to the book an enjoyable and necessary dollop of humor. The story has a quiet, understated, yet suspenseful tone; most of the plot's considerable drama is conveyed in the impressive illustrations. Van Allsburg's choice of palette is reminiscent of that of N. C. Wyeth, and certain double-page spreads recall Wyeth's familiar sweeping skies. The highly saturated tones and the composition of the paintings command attention. The brief text is positioned in white boxes on the near middle of each left-hand page, but because the paintings have such energy and movement, these rectangles never seem distracting—their placement only serves to reinforce the author illustrator's theme about the power of the printed word.
THE WIDOW'S BROOM (1992)
Joann H. Ericson (review date spring 1993)
SOURCE: Ericson, Joann H. Review of The Widow's Broom, by Chris Van Allsburg. Childhood Education 69, no. 3 (spring 1993): 173.
The author weaves a tale of mischief and intrigue [in The Widow's Broom ], from the portentous opening illustration of dangling legs, tumbling broom and plummeting witch's hat and cape to the closing portrait of Minna Shaw nodding gently and peacefully in her rocking chair. Minna stalwartly defends the magical broom's activities against the rising complaints by her neighbors. The subtle illustrations, artfully executed in black-and-white duo-tone, echo the Van Allsburg tradition. All Ages.
Patricia Austin (review date April-May 2003)
SOURCE: Austin, Patricia. Review of The Widow's Broom, by Chris Van Allsburg. Book Links 12, no. 5 (April-May 2003): 36.
Gr. 2-6—When a widow begins to use a witch's broom that has fallen into her field [in The Widow's Broom ], she finds that it has many talents. It can feed the chickens, play the piano, and sweep all by itself. Neighbors who fear what they don't understand want the broom destroyed. The situation in this mysterious tale can be compared with the Salem witch trials and other eras in history.
A CITY IN WINTER (1996)
Elizabeth Devereaux and Diane Roback (review date 9 September 1996)
SOURCE: Devereaux, Elizabeth, and Diane Roback. Review of A City in Winter, by Mark Helprin, illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg. Publishers Weekly 243, no. 37 (9 September 1996): 84.
A none-too-kid-friendly mixture of war story and bureaucratic satire, this tale of a 10-year-old queen's quest to regain her throne [A City in Winter ] suffers from a proliferation of heavy-handed and portentous philosophical passages. "I began my journey to the city in blindness and confidence," says the queen, "which, if you think of it, is how we must all live, given the nature of our origin and the certainty of our destination." Helprin (Winter's Tale; A Soldier of the Great War) is at his weakest in his panoramas of an epic war, which are frequently confusing; and strongest in conveying the farcical and magical aspects of the evil Usurper's empire. For example, the enslaved queen is put to work in the yam section of the palace's starch kitchens; she later tours a storage structure of over 600 floors, including a shop for the repair of winter clothing used by podiatrists attached to the rhinoceros-horn carving apprenticeship program. Two-time Caldecott winner Van Allsburg emphasizes the story's dramatic moments rather than its humor. With characteristic poetic stillness and rich depth of color, his paintings cast a warm glow over the icy city. Although the deliberately cryptic narrative style makes for lackluster reading, the book's handsome design with its use of page ornaments and its production on high-quality paper will make it attractive to collectors of finely illustrated works. Ages 10-up.
THE VEIL OF SNOWS (1997)
Sybil S. Steinberg (review date 29 September 1997)
SOURCE: Steinberg, Sybil S. Review of The Veil of Snows, by Mark Helprin, illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg. Publishers Weekly 244, no. 40 (29 September 1997): 90.
[The Veil of Snows, t]his pseudo-poetic fantasy is the third in Helprin and Caldecott winner Van Allsburg's trilogy that began with Swan Lake. It continues the saga of an unnamed queen defending her country against the evil Usurper, but shows only brief glimpses of the savvy humor of A City in Winter.
The narrator here is an unnamed former torture victim who has been promoted to knight and chief strategist for the queen. Members of the perfidious Tookesheim family, fawning helpmates to the Usurper in the previous book, have now corrupted the queen's empire. Once the Usurper begins a fresh assault on the kingdom, the rest is war—and tragedy ensues. The queen's logic becomes tangled to the point of being laughable: for example, after insisting her men carry a wounded soldier with them (which understandably slows their escape), she is "astonished" to find the troop travels more slowly than they would have otherwise. A mute, starving child is rescued and extravagantly nurtured by the queen, then never mentioned again. Throughout, profound yet impenetrable bits of wisdom are doled out by the narrator. Referring to the queen's potential separation from her infant son, he intones: "The saddest thing in the world was for a parent to have his child loosed upon the wing…." The lavish volume features a few richly magical paintings that rank among Van Allsburg's best work: red trees being lifted up by pulleys to the top of a castle, cattle catapulted through the air. Only these make the book worthwhile.
Susan Dove Lempke (review date 15 November 1997)
SOURCE: Lempke, Susan Dove. Review of The Veil of Snows, by Mark Helprin, illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg. Booklist 94, no. 6 (15 November 1997): 560.
Gr. 4-7—At the end of A City in Winter (1996), the unnamed queen stands poised to lead the rebellion against the evil usurper. This sequel, [The Veil of Snows, ] narrated by a singer turned soldier, begins many years later, after the queen has herself been overthrown. The teller describes his meeting with the queen, who, sounding very much like a real-life contemporary right-wing politician, explains that her land is on the verge of destruction thanks to idiotic journalists, schools that entertain but do not teach, "talking boxes that take the place of books," and foolhardy disarmament. Helprin writes lyrical passages on the power of song and creates stunning images, all of which are gorgeously realized by Van Allsburg. Like its predecessor, this handsome book is recommended for "all ages" by the publisher, but Helprin's decidedly nonlinear storytelling and his subtext seem pitched more to adults who like political fables than to children wanting a good fantasy.
Nancy H. Stevens (review date 1998)
SOURCE: Stevens, Nancy H. Review of The Veil of Snows, by Mark Helprin, illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg. Childhood Education 74, no. 5 (1998): 323.
This book [The Veil of Snows ] is the third collaboration by Helprin and Van Allsburg, following Swan Lake and A City in Winter. This compelling, highly descriptive tale of the struggle between good and evil is told in the context of a kingdom fighting against a malevolent Usurper. The author focuses on the power of the human spirit and its ability to overcome adversity. This beautifully written and illustrated book will enthrall readers.
ZATHURA: A SPACE ADVENTURE (2002)
Diane Roback, Jennifer M. Brown, and Jason Britton (review date 24 June 2002)
SOURCE: Roback, Diane, Jennifer M. Brown, and Jason Britton. Review of Zathura: A Space Adventure, by Chris Van Allsburg. Publishers Weekly 249, no. 25 (24 June 2002): 54.
Twenty years after Jumanji (1981), Van Allsburg picks up where he left off, with Danny and Walter Budwing discovering an oblong box in the park [in Zathura: A Space Adventure ]. Walter dismisses the box as "just some dumb old game," but his curious younger brother takes it home anyway. While Walter watches TV, Danny glances at the game's "jungle adventure" board, then turns his attention to a second board with an outer-space theme and "a path of colored squares leading … to a purple planet called Zathura." Just then, "with a click, a small green card popped out of the edge…. He picked it up and read, 'Meteor showers, take evasive action.'" The boys don't act too surprised when a giant meteor falls into their tastefully appointed living room, but they do get excited when they see only stars and dark sky outside their windows. Several dice-rolls later, they're scrambling to evade a homicidal robot and a scaly "Zyborg pirate" climbing backward through the meteor-hole in the ceiling (its face goes unseen). As the boys play, their sibling rivalry gives way to cooperation, and grouchy Walter comes to appreciate his little brother. Van Allsburg illustrates the surreal events in a grainy charcoal-black that seems to shimmer on a rough, cream-colored ground. His deathly quiet images—double spreads this time—have a frozen stillness that leaves all color and activity to the imagination; with each new threat, the book seems to hold its breath. Van Allsburg reuses some devices, and Zathura, like Jumanji, is a satisfying enigma. The puzzling conclusion, involving a black hole and time travel to an earlier illustration, will have devotees scouring the first book and its sequel for clues. All ages.
Wendy Lukehart (review date November 2002)
SOURCE: Lukehart, Wendy. Review of Zathura: A Space Adventure, by Chris Van Allsburg. School Library Journal 48, no. 11 (November 2002): 139.
K-Gr. 5—For more than 20 years, readers of Jumanji (Houghton, 1981) have had to wonder what happened when the Budwing brothers opened the box that Peter and Judy had frantically discarded in the park. The wait is over [in Zathura: A Space Adventure ], but the wonder continues in this masterfully executed sequel. Walter's physical torture of his younger brother and Danny's annoying behaviors are classic sibling stuff, but savvy readers will recognize that this lack of camaraderie does not bode well here. The simple jungle board does not appeal to Walter, however, so it is not until another game board is uncovered at the bottom of the box that the action begins. This time, the children face the challenges of space, time, and dimension as they read the game cards: "The polarity on your gravity belt is reversed" and "Your gyroscope is malfunctioning." Their journey to the planet Zathura allows Van Allsburg to depict Walter plastered against the living-room ceiling or being swallowed by a black hole. As ringed planets and spaceships swirl past the windows, the boys find their way to teamwork and even affection. Van Allsburg's choice of highly textured paper adds interest and character; the patterned wallpapers are especially effective as homey counterpoints to the surreal story. The creamy background provides warmth and contrast to the black-and-gray sketches, so convincing in conveying depth of field. One can't help but anticipate the encore.
Deborah Stevenson (review date November 2002)
SOURCE: Stevenson, Deborah. Review of Zathura: A Space Adventure, by Chris Van Allsburg. Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books 56, no. 3 (November 2002): 128.
Well, this certainly has a familiar ring: a couple of bored siblings left to their own devices find a board game, and once they begin playing they find them-selves plunged into a world they can only exit through the game itself. This time, [in Zathura: A Space Adventure, ] however, the siblings are Walter and his little brother, Danny, and the game (chosen in preference to a dull-looking adventure called Jumanji ) is a space odyssey involving travel from Earth to the planet Zathura. As the kids play, Walter loses his gravity, almost sliding off into outer space, Danny gets too much gravity and turns into a human bowling ball, and a robot determines to destroy them (they're "alien life forms"), but fortunately Walter slips into a black hole that takes him—and Danny—back in time to before they started their dangerous game. This is essentially a rerun of Jumanji in a new location, but the space adventures are sci-fi cool, and some audiences will appreciate the additional tension provided by the thorny relationship between the brothers. The shadowy black-and-white tones of Van Allsburg's illustrations recall 1950s science-fiction films, with their noirish shadows and spookily reflective surfaces; the eerily even smoky texture of house and boys alike is sometimes monotonous but intrigu ingly suggests machine-engineering in its regularity, and the sharp dark outlines are both a vivid contrast and an emphasis of the other-worldly distance of even the everyday proceedings. The schmaltzy ending (Walter transforms into a nice older brother) is disappointing, but youngsters may still get a thrill from this literary blast-off.
Gillian Engberg (review date 15 November 2002)
SOURCE: Engberg, Gillian. Review of Zathura: A Space Adventure, by Chris Van Allsburg. Booklist 99, no. 6 (15 November 2002): 603.
K-Gr. 3—On the twentieth anniversary of Jumanji, Van Allsburg picks up right where his Caldecott Medal book left off, with [Zathura: A Space Adventure, ] a similarly terrifying adventure set this time in outer space. Danny and Walter Budwing, last seen on the final page of Jumanji, find the magical game box in the park. They discover a second game board inside, decorated with space images. Once home, they begin to play, and like Jumanji 's Peter and Judy, they are instantly catapulted into the game's parallel universe, which this time involves meteor showers, pirate aliens, violent robots, wild shifts in gravity, and a black hole that finally loops the brothers back to the park, before the chaos began. Despite the new setting, there are few differences between this book and its predecessor; the exquisite surreal black-and-white illustrations once again show neat domesticity blown apart by magic. And like Jumanji, this book creates a delicious tension between the action in the words and the frozen scenes of impending disaster. Here, though, there's another layer: the brothers' rivalry. At the beginning, Walter thinks younger Danny is just an annoying "little fungus"; by the end, Walter is protective and loving: "Me and you, together." Jumanji fans and newcomers alike will delight in this continuation of the story, which ends openly, leaving plenty of room for the game to wreak more havoc in the future.
Betty Carter (review date November-December 2002)
SOURCE: Carter, Betty. Review of Zathura: A Space Adventure, by Chris Van Allsburg. Horn Book Magazine 78, no. 6 (November-December 2002): 741-43.
Van Allsburg's Jumanji (rev. 7/81) concludes: "Two boys were running through the park. They were Danny and Walter Budwing, and Danny had a long, thin box under his arm." An unspoken question hangs in the air—will they play the game? Twenty years later, Zathura supplies the answer: of course they will. Danny looks inside the Jumanji box and finds a second game board hidden below the jungle adventure. This one shows "flying saucers, rockets, and planets in outer space, with a path of colored squares leading from Earth to a purple planet called Zathura and back to Earth." When Danny throws the dice, the two boys, still inside their house, are hurled into the heavens. Each succeeding turn brings a new threat (from a rampaging robot to an attacking space ship) as they frantically continue play, first individually and then as partners, in a desperate attempt to return home. Conceptually tied to Jumanji, Zathura is visually different. The luminescent near-photo-realism of the first book is replaced here with coarser textured illustrations appearing as if the gray shading were created with a fine sponge. Stuffed with heavy furniture; bold, patterned wallpaper; and the Budwings' household clutter, the pictures create a claustrophobic intimacy that magnifies the danger. A distinct black line outlines the boys, forming a fragile barrier between the brothers and their environment and creating the illusion that they are cutouts pasted on pages depicting the transmogrification taking place around them. Zathura fails as a sequel, for Van Allsburg reworks his original idea rather than expanding it. The book does, however, succeed as a series entry, delivering a familiar plot device within a different setting. It also stands alone, allowing uninitiated readers surprise at both the fact of interaction and the events themselves. Unfortunately, there is no surprise in the book's heavy-handed message promoting sibling harmony. A saccharine dialogue ends this homily as Walter discards the game, perhaps for yet another two characters to find in a succeeding volume. "'Come on,' he said, 'I've got a better idea. Let's go play catch.' Danny smiled. 'You mean together, me and you?' Walter put his arm around his brother. 'Yeah, that's right,' he said. 'Me and you, together.'"
Lynne T. Burke (review date December 2002–January 2003)
SOURCE: Burke, Lynne T. Review of Zathura: A Space Adventure, by Chris Van Allsburg. Reading Today 20, no. 3 (December 2002–January 2003): 33.
It's baaack! The 1982 Caldecott-Medal winning book Jumanji introduced a magic board game that plunged a pair of siblings into a bizarre jungle adventure. On the last page of the book, the discarded game is seen being picked up by the unsuspecting Budwing brothers.
In this story [Zathura: A Space Adventure ] Danny and Walter Budwing, who have trouble enough just surviving each other, discover another game board jammed into the bottom of the box, and this one is really out of this world. In fact, the moment the dice are rolled they find themselves plagued by aliens, zero gravity, and a host of other space-related phenomena, including a refrigerator-sized meteor that crushes the TV.
Van Allsburg's stunning black-and-white drawings masterfully blur the boundary between fantasy and reality. It is impossible to determine which is more improbable—an attack by a Zorgon pirate ship or two rambunctious brothers who finally figure out how much they need each other.
Bodmer, George R. "The Illustrated Postmodern." In The Image of the Child, edited by Sylvia Patterson Iskander, pp. 76-82. Battle Creek, Mich.: Children's Lit. Assn., 1991.
Compares Van Allsburg's The Mysteries of Harris Burdick with the works of Jon Scieszka and the critical theory of Jack Zipes.
Freeman, Judy. Review of Zathura: A Space Adventure, by Chris Van Allsburg. Instructor 112, no. 8 (May-June 2003): 52-3.
Offers a brief assessment of Zathura: A Space Adventure.
Van Allsburg, Chris. "Caldecott Medal Acceptance." Horn Book Magazine 58, no. 4 (August 1982): 380-83.
Van Allsburg accepts his Caldecott Medal for Jumanji and discusses his development as an author and illustrator.
Van Allsburg, Chris, and Lynne T. Burke. "Author/Illustrator Chris Van Allsburg." Instructor 113, no. 5 (January-February 2004): 22.
Van Allsburg offers advice to young writers and comments on his own creative process as an author and illustrator.
Additional coverage of Van Allsburg's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Children's Literature Review, Vols. 5, 13; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 113, 117; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 38, 120; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 61; Literature Resource Center; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Eds. 1, 2; St. James Guide to Children's Writers, Vol. 5; and Something about the Author, Vols. 37, 53, 105, 156.
"Van Allsburg, Chris 1949–." Children's Literature Review. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 15, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/children/academic-and-educational-journals/van-allsburg-chris-1949
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