- Virginia Johnson
Mysteries for the mind and the eye, that's what Chris Van Allsburg creates for his readers. His drawings seem quite still and perhaps a little dull-until you notice the huge snake slithering across the mantelpiece (Jumanji) or the brambles stealthily growing out of a sleeping girl's book in The Mysteries of Harris Burdick.
Chris Van Allsburg grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and as he tells it, it was a good place for kids to be. Chris rode his bike to school, and nearby were places to go sledding and open fields for a pick-up game. In elementary school, Chris loved to draw, but as he got older that didn't seem to be so cool anymore. He remembers "certain peer pressures encouraged little fingers to learn how to hold a football instead of a crayon."
When he started as a freshman at the University of Michigan, he was looking for something fun to study. At first, he thought about forestry, but when he learned all the not-so-fun work that was involved, he decided against it. He picked up his pencils again and began to study fine arts. He has admitted to feeling a little out of place when he began his classes:
"These kids could really draw. I mean there were some really talented students down there. And when I saw how well they could draw, I was greatly intimidated by it. I thought, "Well, I don't belong here. I'm not really an artist. I just got in here by mistake, and maybe I shouldn't stay.
But then I had a 3-D class, which is studying the rudimentary materials and approaches to making sculpture - three-dimensional design. That drew on skills that I had in abundance from being a model maker and being able to make model boats and cars and trains. And when I started building things, making things with my hands, I realized, "Well, maybe this is the place for me. I can't draw, but I can really make this stuff. I can really build things."*
He graduated college and went on to study sculpture at the Rhode Island School of Design. Because his studio was so far away, he began drawing again at home. One night, Chris' wife brought home a guest from the television show she produced. After dinner David Macaulay (author of The Way Things Work, City, Pyramid, Underground) saw his host's work and was impressed. To him, Chris' drawings seemed to tell a fascinating story. He suggested that Chris send off his drawings to book publishers to see if they were interested in his unique way of bringing the readers into his pictures.
Chris' first project, The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, features a strong-willed white dog named Fritz and his unlucky caretaker, Alan. Fritz slips his leash and runs into a garden where shrubs are carved into fantastic shapes. The sign at the gate says ABSOLUTELY, POSITIVELY NO DOGS ALLOWED IN THIS GARDEN-ABDUL GASAZI, RETIRED MAGICIAN. But dogs can't read, and Alan must find him before the magician does.
Fritz, modeled after his brother-in-law's sassy dog, makes an appearance in each of Chris' books, although he is sometimes cleverly hidden. That pup may have brought him luck. The Garden became a Caldecott Honor book. Two of Chris' later books achieved the Caldecott Medal: Jumanji (1982) and The Polar Express (1986). You may have seen Jumanji and The Polar Express on the big screen or as a video. His recent book, Zathura: A Space Adventure, the sequel to Jumanji, was also made into a movie. The books are very different from the movies. They are shorter and quieter. They'll leave you thinking about what might happen next rather than wondering if your ears will ever stop ringing.
Want to spend an afternoon drenched in quiet imagining? Check out four or five Chris' books. They are quick reads, but their pleasant strangeness stays with you a long time. Click here for a list of all that we own. Look below for five books not to be missed and links to more information on this author:
The Mysteries of Harris Burdick
An ocean liner entering the narrow waterways of Venice, an almost ordinary house on Maple Street ("It was a perfect lift-off."), these pictures of the bizarre, supposedly left at a publisher's office by an aspiring artist, are the perfect launch for writers' imaginations.
The Bailey family figures the stranger must be a hermit. He wears leather clothes, can't speak, and never tires out when he helps them on the farm. One week goes by, two weeks go by, and more, and the stranger still can't remember who he is. You might guess by the end of the book.
The Widow's Broom
Witches' brooms usually lose their magic a little bit at a time, but one autumn night a broom zooming through the sky lost its flying power all at once and crashed its owner into a Widow Shaw's vegetable garden.
The Wretched Stone
As Captain Hope's log recalls, the Rita Anne was a happy ship until the day they unearthed the Wretched Stone.
The Z Was Zapped
And "the G was starting to grow." Look for high drama in black and white for not-so-young children and adults in the Alphabet Theatre, directed by Mr. Chris Van Allsburg.
On the Web:
Chris Van Allsburg: An Exclusive Interview
Watch video clips of a lengthy interview or read the transcript at the bottom of the page. You will need RealOne Player to see the video.
Chris Van Allsburg Quotes
"Any system named Dewey was all right with us. We looked forward to hearing about the Huey and Louie decimal systems too."
Twenty telling quotes from the author.
The Official Chris Van Allsburg Web Site
A fun site! In addition to interviews and biography, you will find games, a scavenger hunt, a place to write a story, a postcard, wallpaper, a screensaver, and coloring pages.
There are also three articles available online through Biography Resource Center, which can be accessed by Central Rappahannock Regional Library patrons at no charge. The works are drawn from Contemporary Authors, Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, and St. James Guide to Children's Writers.