Children's Authors/Chris Van Allsburg

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Biographical Information[edit | edit source]

Chris Van Allsburg - born June 18, 1949 Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Chris always loved to draw, but this interest was not always encouraged. Young boys growing up in the 1950's were encouraged to be athletic, not artistic. Chris's family was involved in running the "East End Creamery" where they bottled milk and made butter, cream, cottage cheese and ice cream. His grandfather, father and uncles worked there and then delivered the goods to homes all around Grand Rapids in yellow and blue trucks. He lived next door to the creamery in an old farm house that overlooked farmland. Later his family moved to a new house in a planned development, but there still remained open fields and streams for a curious, creative boy to explore. During his teenage years, his family moved again to the east side of Grand Rapids where they lived in an old brick Tudor-style house which resembled the house and street on the cover of The Polar Express.

Chris focused much of his early education in math and science. Upon entrance into the University of Michigan, however, he chose to study art. This was in 1967 when Chris was 17. He was admitted without a portfolio, after flat out lying to the admissions officer. He convinced this officer that he took private art lessons on Saturdays and that this was the reason no art classes showed up on his high school transcripts. Once admitted, Chris felt very out of place since he was so lacking in his art background, but he discovered that sculpture was a way that he could express his skills and craftsmanship that he had developed as a boy. While in art school the only pictures Chris drew were the images of the sculptures he would make. He graduated with a degree in sculpture in 1972 and continued his graduate study at the Rhode Island School of Design, graduating in 1975.

Chris set up a sculpture studio in Providence, Rhode Island, and exhibited his sculptures throughout New England and New York. During this time he married Lisa Morrison, whom he had met while at the University of Michigan. Lisa was also an art student who had become an elementary teacher. She encouraged Chris to draw pictures for a story book. When his drawings were shown to Walter Lorraine, editor for Houghton Mifflin, he encouraged Chris to think about writing stories of his own. So Chris embarked on the work that later became The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, published in 1979. In this book he borrowed his brother-in-law's bull terrier Winston to portray the dog Fritz. Winston's short fame was ended by a speeding car, so to honor him Chris included the dog in tiny, little cameo appearances in the rest of his books. Children have come to anticipate the search to where this bull terrier is hidden in his books. Van Allsburg eventually published 15 other books. In 1980, he was awarded the Caldecott Honor Medal for The Garden of Abdul Gasazi and went on to win two other Caldecott Medals, for Jumanji and The Polar Express. Chris was also the recipient of the Boston Globe Horn Book Award for The Garden of Abdul Gasazi and received the Boston Globe Honor for The Polar Express and The Mysteries of Harris Burdick.

Chris and Lisa became parents in 1991 with the birth of their daughter Sophia, and again when their second daughter Anna was born in 1995. The family lives in Providence, Rhode Island, where Chris continues his work in his third floor studio. Van Allsburg enjoys riding his bike, playing tennis, and amusing children by playing the recorder through his nose.

Books of Interest[edit | edit source]

Each of Chris Van Allsburg's books showcases his imagination, revealing a place where an ordinary world of fantasy, magic, and sometimes even menace, occurs. He brings readers into unresolved stories they feel compelled to finish themselves. When you first look at his illustrations they are easily connected from one story to the next. A good picture book should have events that are visually arresting; the pictures should call attention to what is happening in the story. He draws with strategies of perspective, light, and point of view to add the mysterious qualities to his work. Moving around a lot as a child has provided Chris with a mind full of scenes. He describes himself as lying in bed on his back, without a pen or paper, and using this imagination to find out where a character might go. Here are a few examples of this "imagination" put to work:

The Garden of Abdul Gasazi 1979 – This is Van Allsburg's first book. The idea came about as Chris was witness to a boy chasing a dog, he asked himself, "Who's the boy?" "Who's the dog?" "Who's garden is this?" During this process of interrogation, a story revealed itself. Alan is put in charge of taking care of Miss Hester’s dog Fritz. The mischievous dog ends up in the garden of magician Abdul Gasazi where Fritz is turned into a duck. Or is he? Is magic real or just a trick that somebody can fool one into believing? This is the beginning of the mysteries that Van Allsburg leaves his readers questioning at the end of each of his books. At the end, when Alan discovers that Fritz is at Miss Hester's front yard, he knew it was just a trick. But when Fritz returns Alan's hat that was lost and taken by the duck, he wonders if he was really temporarily turned into a duck.

Jumanji 1981 – Chris was motivated to write his second book by a waiting audience. This story grew out of a visual idea of a wild jungle growing and living inside the safety of the house. When a game falls into the hands of siblings Peter and Judy, they use it to deal with their boredom. In the end the game ends up into the hands of a couple of boys who may not be particularly apt players of the game, leaving an unresolved ending.

The Mysteries of Harris Burdick 1984 – Each of the pictures in this book represent a story to be told. Van Allsburg creates a fictional premise for the pictures: They were brought to the publisher Peter Wenders, by Harris Burdick to see if he would publish his 14 stories. Harris never returned, leaving a mystery of what these stories may have been about. This book inspires students to respond to writing their own story. See the home site under references for sending stories that students compose.

The Enchanted World: Ghosts 1984 - Van Allsburg illustrated a Scandinavian folktalke, which is part of the volume's chapter, The Hooded Congregation, which is published by Time-Life, Inc.

The Polar Express 1985 - Interestingly, this story was completed in one draft. Van Allsburg describes it as feeling as though he was recovering a memory. The story connects to the same mysterious ending as Alan with Gasazi, is it real magic or someone fooling him. A young boy goes for the train ride of his life, a ride no one in the real world will ever believe he took. Santa offers the boy any gift he would like. To everyone's surprise he asks for one of the bells from a reindeer harness. The bell winds up missing from a pocket with a hole. How does this same bell come to be placed under the Christmas tree? "When kids still believe in magic, it makes the whole house at Christmastime different."

The Enchanted World: Dwarfs 1985 - Van Allsburg illustrated a picture of a dwarf frozen and turned into stone, which is part of the volume, and is published by Time-Life, Inc.

The Widow’s Broom 1992 – This book is a wonderful Halloween reading, yet it raises a year-round issue of tolerance. In this story widow Minna Shaw accepts the magic broom into her home bringing the supernatural into normal life, pushing against the boundaries of reality. Humans often fear what they don't understand, which is woven into another mystery by Van Allsburg.

From Sea to Shining Sea 1993 - Van Allsburg illustrates a chapter, which involves Tall Tales, including "Paul Bunyan", "John Henry", "Johnny Appleseed", "Pecos Bill", and "Ichabod Crane".

Zathura 2002 - A sequel to Jumanji was never intended, yet since it had a somewhat unresolved ending the reader knows that the story lives on. The motivation that "I think I can do this better," is what spurred on this next game story. Chris found there were elements missing in Jumanji that he wanted to reveal in this next piece, specifically the sibling relationship, and in Zathura this relationship is a larger focus for the story.

References[edit | edit source]

Reading Rockets video interview with author:

The official Chris Van Allsburg website:


Slideshow of illustrations:

Lesson plans for teaching Van Allsburg books:

Burke, Lynne T. Author/Illustrators. Instructor. 2004

Nel, Phillip. The Fall and Rise of Children's Literature. Journal of American Art. Spring 2009. Vol.22 Issue1 p.23-27

Van Allsburg, Chris. The Garden of Abdul Gasazi. Houghton Mifflin Books for Children. 1979

Van Allsburg, Chris. Jumanji. Houghton Mifflin Books for Children. 1981

Van Allsburg, Chris. The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. Houghton Mifflin Books for Children. 1984

Van Allsburg, Chris. The Enchanted World: Ghosts. Time Life Books. 1984

Van Allsburg, Chris. The Polar Express. Houghton Mifflin Books for Children. 1985

Appenzeller, Tim. The Enchanted World: Dwarfs. Time Life Books. 1985

Van Allsburg, Chris. The Widow's Broom. Houghton Mifflin Books for Children. 1992

Cohn, Amy L.. From Sea to Shining Sea. Scholastic. 1993

Van Allsburg, Chris. Zathura. Houghton Mifflin Books for Children. 2002