Chris Van Allsburg. Illustrator Study – LIB 732 Laura Collins November 2009. Chris Van Allsburg Insights.
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Illustrator Study – LIB 732
“To puzzle children is more interesting to me than to educate or frighten them. I like to plant a seed that will start a mental process, rather than present my own.” – CVA (Allis)
“A story with some ambiguity has a vitality and life that a completely resolved story lacks. If I resolve a story at the end, it’s like turning the light out. That’s it. I like the idea that there’s still a little light flickering, even though the book is closed.” – CVA (Burke)
“A picture with staying power is one that unlocks a doorto others and becomes a logical story.”
– CVA (Howe)
“Subject matter is only the tiniest partof what a picture is.”
(The Christian Science Monitor)
He has a “gift for adopting unusual vantage points” (Allis).
His pictures’ “intensity comes from startling visual incongruities” (Christian Science Monitor).
“He’s taken the seemingly ordinary and made you feel a little bit squeamish. He provokes a sense of wonder, mystery, and befuddlement.”
– H. Nichols B. Clark, Art Historian (Christian Science Monitor)
“Ultimately, though, by publishing works that are admittedly idiosyncratic, quirky, and highly personal– thus exposing his fears and fantasies– he enables his audience to identify with him strongly as well” (Hurwitz).
“Magical, ambiguoustales that raise questions without supplying obvious answers, Van Allsburg’s works are perhaps successful because of the questions that remain unanswered– questions that require the reader’s imagination and faith” (Hurwitz).
Offered a position at RISD as a professor in the
illustration department, Van Allsburg felt guilty
that he hadn’t actually done illustration (he was
primarily a sculptor). Thus, to establish his
credibility, he decided to publish a book. His
wife, Lisa, a former elementary school and art
teacher, is responsible for bringing his work to
publishers’ attention (Hurwitz).
See his sculptures at:
Chris Van Allsburg | Sculpture
“I have the picture in my
imagination. Sometimes the words
come to me, because I see
something, and I see there may be
a story somewhere that ties things
together. The drawings talk back
to the text.”
– CVA (Christian Science Monitor)
“I lie in bed on my back, without a
pen or paper, and use my
imagination to find out where a
character or a story might go.”
– CVA (Burke)
“I would probably do all of my books over if I could.” - CVA (Hurwitz)
“I sit down and start writing little notes. I
try to make an outline. I always have a
very clear idea of what the story beats
are– the general shape of the story. So I
start doing some sketching, and then I go
back and work on the text a little bit. For
a while, they’re affecting each other.”
– CVA (Burke)
“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 chooseto 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.” – CVA (Frederick)
In 1977, Allsburg was primarily a sculptor, earning recognition
for “quirky” pieces described as “intricate and extravagantly
detailed” with “fastidious craftsmanship” that “reflects a
childlike wonder for the way things are made.” NY Times critic
Vivien Raynor saw Surrealism and “shades of Magritte”
in his works (Hurwitz).
Sculpture uses a different part of his brain than illustration
does. He finds working with three dimensions easy, while
illustrating is “tedious and often tortuous” (Hurwitz). Still, his
work as a sculptor influences his illustrations.
Caldecott Honor Book 1980
“‘Brilliant illustrations resemble snapshots taken by the brain of Poe.’”
“haunting, magical graphite drawings of topiary trees”
“eerie and slightly ominous; a sense of mystery lingers”
Caldecott Medal Winner 1982
“As the game begins, the point of view becomes
exaggerated– one sees the room and the
animals either from the ceiling or from below, so
everything seems extraordinary in scale.” (Burke)
“14 moody, black-and-white drawings of a
brother and sister who become lost in a curious
board game– one in which the line between
reality and fantasy is blurred but never wholly
“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.”
– CVA (Print)
“a series of fourteen
unrelated, sometimes eerie
pictures of compressed
charcoal based on captions
that the artist claims had
been deserted by their
author at a publisher’s
“The book embodies the
enigmatic, magical, and
surrealistic quality of all his
Caldecott Medal Winner 1986
“ ‘Oil pastels complement the rich, evocative text
and capture the universal longing to believe… the
double-page spreads provide scope for the
unusual perspective and slightly indistinct
outlines that create a haunting atmosphere.’”
– Mae Benne, Chair of the Caldecott Committee
(SLJ, March 1986)
“A Christmas story about faith and the desire to
believe in something…” – CVA (SLJ, January 1996)
CVA alleges that a red-haired, green-eyed boy gave
him the idea for The Polar Express when he tried to
sell him a broken bell. After CVA gave the boy all of
his money, the bell suddenly “rang beautifully, like
some kind of heavenly chime” (SLJ, January 1996).
This story is generally believed to be fictional.
“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.” – CVA (Print)
“The palette for The Polar Express was
inspired by the paintings of nineteenth-
century German artist Caspar David
“…Van Allsburg’s pictures in The Polar Express
recall the austere tension of Edward Hopper
and the surreal surprise of Rene Magritte.”
(The Christian Science Monitor)
“Van Allsburg, playing with perspective, creates
marvelous contrasts and images. But although
Two Bad Ants is visually different from its
predecessors, it shares the same strong style,
dazzling artwork and whimsy that characterizes
all of the artist's work.”
Publishers Weekly (September 30, 1988)
“The book is a visual tour-de-force. The highly linear,
hard-edged drawings look like fine etchings which have
been magnified-- a technique which enhances the
sense of being reduced to ant size. The colors applied in
flat fields are primarily limited to earth tones and gray,
combined with touches of pure white and black in lines
and fields of almost luminous intensity.”
School Library Journal (November 1988)
“If I were an ant looking out from an electrical socket,
the long slits in which the light poured would look like
15-ft. doorways hung in space.” – CVA (Allis)
“a fairy tale laced with social
The book “is intended to have the
feeling of ‘a book done in a
different time.’ Designed to be of
‘collectible quality,’ it has an illustrated,
gold-stamped, blue-cloth cover; heavy,
off-white paper for the text, complete
with small, blue-gray images designed
by Van Allsburg to adorn every page…”
In order not to interfere with Mark
Helprin’sdescriptive gifts, he “purposely
chose to draw scenes that were not greatly
detailed in the language” (Hurwitz).
“The dramatic illustrations increase the
suspense and surprise inherent in the
unlikely adventures described. Visual
humor, although used sparingly, also
adds to the appeal of the colorful
paintings. While this picture book could
be read merely as an exotic ocean
adventure, literacy advocates and fans of
book discussions will enjoy ruminating
over the symbolism of the mysterious
glowing stone and arguing over the
interpretation of Van Allsburg'soblique
– Lisa Dennis, The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh (SLJ, November 1991)
“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.”
– Wendy Lukehart, Washington DC Public Library (SLJ,November 2002)
Creation of Zathuratook six or seven
months, which is standard for CVA.
“I deal with issues from my own psyche. Maybe they are not that different from those of an eight-year-old. Or maybe I have a really good memory of what it is like to be a child.”
Chris Van Allsburg
“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.”
Caldecott Medal Acceptance Speech
The Polar Express, 1986
Allis, Sam. “Rhinoceroses in the living room: Chris Van Allsburg taps into children’s sense of mystery. (children’s illustrator, author).” Time 13 Nov. 1989: 108. Student Resource Center – Gold. Web. 12 Nov. 2009.
Burke, Lynne T. “AUTHOR/ILLUSTRATORS.” Instructor 113.5 (2004): 22-29. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 3 Nov. 2009.
"Chris Van Allsburg | Home." Chris Van Allsburg | The Official Chris Van Allsburg Website. Web. 15 Nov. 2009.
Frederick, Heather Vogel. “Chris Van Allsburg.” Publishers Weekly 14 Oct. 2002: 27-28. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 3 Nov. 2009.
Heller, Steven. “Back Talk: Chris Van Allsburg, Creator, The Polar Express, Interview.” PRINT Nov./Dec. 2004: 50-52, 334. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 3 Nov. 2009.
Howe, Rob. “Drawing power: Chris Van Allsburg’sJumanji puts him on Hollywood’s hit list.” People Weekly 22 Jan. 1996: 97+. Student Resource Center – Gold. Web. 12 Nov. 2009.
Hurwitz, L.S. “Chris Van Allsburg. (Cover story).” American Artist (VNU eMedia, Inc.) 54.574 (1990): 58. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 3 Nov. 2009.
“Illustrators get their day in the gallery; For artists such as Chris Van Allsburg, children’s books are anything but child’s play.” Christian Science Monitor 31 Dec. 2004: 17. Student Resource Center – Gold. Web. 12 Nov. 2009.
“MacLachlan Wins ‘86 Newberry Medal: Van Allsburg Wins Caldecott Medal.” School Library Journal Mar. 1986: 84-85. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 3 Nov. 2009.
“Van Allsburg ‘Confesses’ on Polar Express Anniversary.” School Library JournalJan. 1996: 18. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 3 Nov. 2009.
Vernick, Annie. "Time for Kids | News | TFK Talks with Chris Van Allsburg." Time For Kids | Classroom. Time, Inc. Web. 14 Nov. 2009.