Parents, educators, and children have been known to develop a kind of obsession with the books of Chris Van Allsburg. His work appeals to diverse audiences because it is neither simplistic nor formulaic. Van Allsburg doesn’t write with an eye toward what an eight-year-old child might enjoy, but rather what he himself would like. The only consistent element in his books is the always fascinating, often mysterious, and occasionally menacing way he approaches the question “What if?” What if a boy awoke one night to find a massive steam engine in front of his house? What if a roll of the dice on a simple board game could actually bring the game to life? What if a witch had to retire her flying broom?
Van Allsburg was raised in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He attended the University of Michigan with the vague idea of studying law, but the art courses he took as a lark proved more interesting than anything else he studied. In 1972, he graduated with a degree in sculpture and moved to Providence, Rhode Island, where he continued his studies at the Rhode Island School of Design. Shortly after he received his graduate degree, Van Allsburg began to show his sculptures in New York City galleries, where their surreal imagery quickly won him a reputation as an artist to watch. He didn’t begin drawing until 1979, when his teaching commitments at RISD and a cold studio too far across town kept him from his sculpture.
The black-and-white artwork he created in carbon pencil and charcoal appealed to his wife, Lisa, who used picture books in her elementary school art classes. She felt her husband’s pictures had the quality of illustration, and with the encouragement of a friend, the illustrator David Macaulay, she decided to show the work to children’s book editors. In Boston, Lisa visited Walter Lorraine at Houghton Mifflin, Macaulay’s editor. Lorraine looked at a drawing that showed a lump in a carpet and a man raising a chair to hit it (an image much like the one in Van Allsburg’s The Mysteries of Harris Burdick) and said, “If he can get this much storytelling content into one piece of art, I know he can create a children’s book.” Lisa walked out with the promise of a contract, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Houghton Mifflin has published nineteen of Van Allsburg’s books: from his Caldecott Honor Award-winning first book, The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, to The Misadventures of Sweetie Pie. The success of Van Allsburg’s Jumanji and The Polar Express is no less than phenomenal. Both received Caldecott Medals, Jumanji was made into a movie in 1995, and The Polar Express was a blockbuster film starring Tom Hanks released in 2004. His third movie adaptation, Zathura, came out in November of 2005. The Widow’s Broom, for which he wrote the screenplay, and The Sweetest Fig are also in development for the big screen. The Chronicles of Harris Burdick is an inspired collection of short stories by an all-star cast of best-selling storytellers, based on the thought-provoking illustrations in his earlier classic, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. He has received the Regina Medal for lifetime achievement in children’s literature, a National Book Award, and a Society of Illustrators Lifetime Achievement Award, among other honors. He lives outside of Boston, Massachusetts.
A Conversation with Chris Van Allsburg by Anita Silvey
1986 Caldecott Medal acceptance speech for The Polar Express