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Chris Van Allsburg. Illustrator Study – LIB 732 Laura Collins November 2009. Chris Van Allsburg Insights.

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chris van allsburg

Chris Van Allsburg

Illustrator Study – LIB 732

Laura Collins

November 2009

chris van allsburg insights
Chris Van AllsburgInsights

“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)

chris van allsburg insights1
Chris Van AllsburgInsights

“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)

  • Born in 1949 in Grand Rapids, Michigan; son of a dairy farmer
  • Favorite childhood book: Harold and the Purple Crayon
  • B.F.A. at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
  • M.F.A. in sculpture at Rhode Island School of Design, 1975
  • Wife: Lisa Morrison
  • Daughters: Sophia and Anna
  • Professor of illustration at RISD for many years; resigned to devote time to family

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).

the beginning
The Beginning

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

inspiration creativity
Inspiration / Creativity

“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)

the process
The Process

“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)

stylistic influences
Stylistic Influences

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.

the garden of abdul gasazi 1979
The Garden of Abdul Gasazi - 1979

Caldecott Honor Book 1980

“‘Brilliant illustrations resemble snapshots taken by the brain of Poe.’”

– Time

“haunting, magical graphite drawings of topiary trees”


“eerie and slightly ominous; a sense of mystery lingers”


jumanji 1981
Jumanji – 1981

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

erased” (Howe)

“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)

  • ;
the mysteries of harris burdick 1984
The Mysteries of Harris Burdick - 1984

“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

office” (Burke)

“The book embodies the

enigmatic, magical, and

surrealistic quality of all his

work.” (Burke)

the polar express 1985
The Polar Express - 1985

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 cont d
The Polar Express (cont’d)

“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

Friedrich” (Hurwitz).

“…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)

two bad ants 1988
Two Bad Ants - 1988

“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)

swan lake 1989
Swan Lake - 1989

“a fairy tale laced with social

commentary” (Hurwitz)

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 wretched stone 1991
The Wretched Stone - 1991

“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)

zathura 2002
Zathura – 2002

“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.”

  • Chris Van Allsburg,

Caldecott Medal Acceptance Speech

The Polar Express, 1986

works cited
Works Cited

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.