Jumanji (1981)

Chris Van Allsburg, originally from the “mitten” state of Michigan, was born in 1949 to Richard and Doris (Christiansen) Van Allsburg and spent his childhood growing up in Grand Rapids. Without taking a single art class throughout his high school tenure, Van Allsburg craftily got accepted to the University of Michigan’s art school in 1967 in which he majored in sculpture — learning about resin molding, bronze casting, as well as wood carving. Upon graduating in 1972, he took his studies to Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and pursued a Master of Fine Arts, once again focusing on sculpture. In 1975, he graduated from RISD and married Lisa Morrison, a young lady in which he met during his undergraduate years in Michigan.

Van Allsburg, better known for his writing and illustration work, stumbled upon that path rather indirectly. According to his biographical information shared on his website, Van Allsburg began exhibiting his sculpture work in various museums and galleries in New York and across the New England region. In the evenings while at home, he would draw which resulted in several pieces being put on display at the Whitney Museum of Art. His wife, Lisa, who was friends with author and illustrator David Macaulay, provided contact information to his editor, Walter Lorraine (Houghton Mifflin). Lorraine was impressed with Van Allsburg’s work and encouraged him to develop stories to accompany his various illustrations. And so it began…

While Van Allsburg continued with his sculpture work, he began focusing time and energy towards the development of print works. From his very first published piece in 1979 (The Garden of Abdul Gasazi) winning the Caldecott Honor to present day, he has both illustrated and written seventeen books for his collection with two pieces earning the Caldecott Medal (Jumanji, 1981 and The Polar Express, 1985). Van Allsburg was also the illustrator of a trilogy written by author Mark Helprin (Swan Lake, 1989; A City in Winter, 1996; and, The Veil of Snows, 1997) — the collection is published under the title of A Kingdom Far and Clear: The Complete Swan Lake Trilogy. In addition to the works already mentioned, his catalog includes: Ben’s Dream (1982), The Wreck of the Zephyr (1983), The Mysteries of Harris Burdick (1984), The Stranger (1986), The Z Was Zapped (1987), Two Bad Ants (1988), Just a Dream (1990), The Wretched Stone (1991), The Widow’s Broom (1992), The Sweetest Fig (1993), The Mysteries of Harris Burdick (portfolio edition, 1994), Bad Day at Riverbend (1995), Zathura (2002), Probuditi (2006), and Queen of the Falls (2011).

In each of Van Allsburg’s books, a small white dog is included in various forms: puppet, toy, and of course, in the traditional canine form. On his website, Van Allsburg addresses the story of Fritz:

The first story that I wrote, The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, had a dog in it named Fritz. When I thought about the kind of dog I wanted Fritz to be, I decided he should be a bull terrier. Unfortunately, I didn’t know any bull terriers that could be my model for drawing pictures. I found some photographs, but they were not what I needed. What I needed was a real dog. My brother-in-law, David, visited one day, and told me he was thinking of getting a dog, possibly a golden retriever. I told him he should get himself something more interesting. Something really unusual. I showed him photos of bull terriers and he agreed that it was a most unusual and appealing dog.

Not long after that, he acquired a bull terrier puppy, and named him Winston. Winston became the model for Fritz, and because he was my brother-in-law’s dog, I thought of Winston as a kind of nephew. Sadly, Winston had an accident that sent him to the big dog kennel in the sky at a young age. I decided to commemorate the contribution he made to my first book by including him (or at least a tiny part of him) in all of my books.

In addition to his books, Van Allsburg has created posters for many agencies, organizations, and causes including, but not limited to the Rhode Island Festival of Children’s Books and Authors, American Library Association: Year of the Young Reader (1989), Portland Symphony Orchestra, and even a postage stamp in 1997 promoting awareness of childhood learning. Twelve of his drawings have been published and made available on his website. The more notable works are Cat Fish Bouillabaisse, A Little Place by the Sea, Design for the Arizona Lighthouse Trust, Disappearing Egg Cup, and Lost at Sea.

A scene from the Mysteries of Harris Burdick

Artistic Mediums
Surveying the illustrations for Van Allsburg’s collection of books, the majority of his works feature monochromatic color with pieces in black and white and some works done in sepia tones. What sets Van Allsburg apart from other author-illustrators is that he does not always employ the same mediums for his work. In fact, in an interview hosted by Scholastic in November of 2004, a student inquired about the mediums used to create the illustrations Van Allsburg responded with:

I use many different things. I use charcoal pencils. I use colored pencils, pastels. I use a little watercolor sometimes. I use pen and ink, and I use something a little different for each book because that way it is always interesting for me to make the pictures.

Furthermore, in an interview by The Providence Journal (Projo) this past summer, Van Allsburg stated, “The reality is, if I had stuck with one set of materials, I probably would have developed a higher level of mastery. But one of the interesting things about making things is the learning process that happens.”

Van Allsburg’s second book, published two years after his first was later made into a blockbuster movie in 1995 that starred actor Robin Williams. Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data gives a concise summary, “Left on their own for an afternoon, two bored and restless children find more excitement than they bargained for in a mysterious and mystical jungle adventure board game.” The book features a hunter green dust jacket with illustrations on the front and back; the cover work coming directly from the illustration in the text block while the illustration on the back cover is a close-up of the board game and pieces. Textured mustard-yellow endpapers adorn the inside of the book and an illustration of the board game is featured on the title page.

The story of Jumanji is shared with readers on unnumbered pages via matte paper. Narration for the story was placed on the verso-side and pencil-drawn illustrations have been placed on the recto-side. Because the story takes place in a domestic setting, Van Allsburg has devoted much detail to the furnishings and surroundings which added credibility and authenticity to the story. Several illustrations in the book employ the use of a higher vantage point that gives the appearance of looking down upon the scene while other illustrations give the impression that the reader is present and participating in the children’s jungle adventure.

The Mysteries of Harris Burdick
The fifth book in the Van Allsburg collection, published five years after his first, differs from the rest in that it features a series of individual illustrations that do not follow a single cohesive story. Because of the complexity of this piece, an explanation from the inside flap of the dust jacket is needed to explain the concept.

When Chris Van Allsburg was invited to the home of Peter Wenders, he discovered fourteen drawings that were, like piece of a picture puzzle, clues to larger pictures. But the puzzles, the mysteries, presented by these drawings, are not what we are used to. They are not solved for us, as in the final pages of a book or a film’s last reel. The solutions to these mysteries lie in a place at once closer at hand, yet far more remote. They lie in our imagination.

In the media in order to create an air of mystery, Van Allsburg has portrayed this book as a compilation of illustrations by Harris Burdick; however, in actuality, the works were, indeed, illustrated by Van Allsburg himself.

Like Jumanji, Harris Burdick is illustrated in black and white on unnumbered matte pages. A black dust jacket, smooth black endpapers and a curious illustration featured on the title page contribute to the mystique of the book. In the text block, the verso-side plays host to sparse text, the title of the illustration with a caption, and the recto-side features a full-page illustration that invokes the reader’s imagination. For example, the second illustration is titled Under the Rug with the caption reading, “Two weeks passed and it happened again.” The illustration depicts a middle-aged man, holding a chair above his head, looking down at a large object hiding underneath the room’s rug.

It is worth mentioning that the twelfth illustration titled Just Desert features a possible typographical error – the scene depicts a woman in the kitchen beginning to work on a baking project featuring a pumpkin. Because the book lacks narration and text beyond titles and captions, the error is contextual. In late October 2011, this book will be re-released under the title The Chronicles of Harris Burdick: Fourteen Amazing Authors Tell the Tales. As the title mentions, Van Allsburg collaborated with fourteen authors who developed narration for each illustration that is featured in the book. According to a review in Publisher’s Weekly, Lemony Snicket covered the introduction and the following authors contributed narration to the illustrations: Sherman Alexie, M.T. Anderson, Kate DiCamillo, Cory Doctorow, Jules Feiffer, Stephen King, Tabitha King, Lois Lowry, Gregory Maguire, Walter Dean Myers, Linda Sue Park, Louis Sachar, Jon Scieszka, as well as Van Allsburg.

The Polar Express
Just a year after The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, Van Allsburg published his renowned piece that earned a Caldecott Medal. Similar to an earlier piece of literature, Jumanji, this piece was also developed into a movie that was released in 1995 and featured actor Tom Hanks as the conductor of the Polar Express. Glossy white, the dust jacket features a large illustration of snow falling onto a residential scene with a train parked curiously in the road — the illustration is continued onto the back of the jacket which gives impression of the train’s size. A warm textured brown paper is used for the book’s endpapers which is complementary of the cover art.

Unlike the previous two books which were drawn in black and white, The Polar Express features full color oil pastel illustrations rendered on glossy paper. Because the story takes place at night and the early hours of Christmas morning, the overall color used in this piece is darker than other full color books in the Van Allsburg collection. Also differing from Van Allsburg’s other works, the illustrations in this piece were designed to take up the bulk of each two-page spread with the location of the text varying throughout the book. Fritz is featured on the very first page in puppet form.

The Widow’s Broom
When visually surveying the books considered thus far, The Widow’s Broom literally stands out. Rather than the traditional landscape format, this tall and narrow piece was published in portrait format which is seems appropriate when considering that the book is delivering the magical story of a broom. According to the cataloging information offered by the Library of Congress, The Widow’s Broom is summarized as, “A witch’s worn-out broom serves a widow well, until her neighbors decide the thing is wicked and dangerous.” Like The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, this piece also has a black dust jacket and is adorned with black endpapers; however, in the case of The Widow’s Broom, a warm brown, almost orange, color on the dust jacket and the boards give the book an autumn and Halloween-feel — the time of year in which the story was set.

In contrast to the other works presented thus far, The Widow’s Broom employs the use of several full two-page spread illustrations without text or narration. Also differing from the previous books introduced thus far, a border of pumpkins adorns the top and bottom of pages in which narration is present adding to the autumnal-feeling. Rather than the smooth illustrations done in black and white employed in other works by Van Allsburg, illustrations in The Widow’s Broom are textured and rendered in sepia tones. From the broom’s twigs, the boards of the wood floor and bead board walls, to the bark on the trees, Van Allsburg’s use of lines is apparent throughout the illustrations in this piece. And for the Fritz fans, he makes his first appearance of several in this book, on page 17 in canine form.

The sequel to Jumanji (1981), Zathura was published in book form in 2002 and made the silver screen when released to theaters in 2005. According to the dust jacket, a dark purple color, a brief overview of the story is offered by the publisher:

On the last page of the Caldecott Medal-winning book Jumanji, young Danny Budwing is seen running home with a game tucked under his arm. Now, after twenty years, Chris Van Allsburg is ready to reveal what happens when Danny and his brother roll the dice.

This time the name of the game is Zathura and Walter and Danner Budwing are in for the ride of their lives.

Like Jumanji, the story is illustrated in black and white and takes place in a domestic setting with detail given to the surroundings; however, the overall illustration style differs and it is quite similar to the grainy and textured drawings presented in The Widow’s Broom and also has black endpapers. Also different from the books explored thus far, the illustrations in Zathura take up the entire two-page spread and the story’s narration is shared via embedded white space surrounded by a thin-line border. Fritz, located in the first illustrated spread, was somewhat difficult to find as he was tucked into a model car parked on a shelf in the boys’ bedroom.

Queen of the Falls
In an article published by School Library Journal, Debra Lau Whelan interviewed Van Allsburg about his latest work and offers a brief overview of the book: “… a true story of 62-year-old Annie Taylor, the first person to survive a trip over the Niagara Falls in a barrel, and the fame and fortune that she never received.” His first piece of non-fiction features illustrations drawn via pencil, perfect for depicting water and movement, presented on glossy paper with sepia-tones. Like Zathura, the dust jacket is almost the same dark purple; however, rather than black end papers, Queen of the Falls is adorned with beautiful silvery-gray endpapers reminiscent of mist of Niagara Falls.

Earlier this year, Queen of the Falls was featured in a blog post titled Review of the Day also published by School Library Journal. The reviewer stated the following:

I was fascinated by Van Allsburg’s choices of how to present one scene or another too. Picture book illustrators have reinterpreted the lives of famous (and not so famous) people for decades. But how Van Allsburg’s take on Annie felt different, and I tried to figure out why this was. There is a moment in this book when a down-on-her-luck Ms. Edison scans The Bay City Bugle for jobs or ideas. On the left-hand page you see her resting her head on her hand, seemingly uninterested. On the right-hand page it’s as if a light bulb has gone on in her brain. Everything about her is electrified and in the midst of her idea she has inadvertently knocked the flower vase on her table over. It’s the “Ah ha!” moment, and feels almost cinematic.

As the reviewer described the layout of a pair of illustrations, it is certainly worth mentioning that the overall format of Queen of the Falls differs from any of Van Allsburg’s other works. While full page illustrations are present throughout the book, smaller illustrations are embedded in areas previously reserved solely for the presentation of text and narration. Panel-style illustrations reminiscent of some graphic novels and comic books are also interspersed. Rest assured, while this book is certainly different, the famous Fritz makes an appearance on page 28.

Event at the Observatory, 1974

Opinion and Conclusion
In reviewing Van Allsburg’s artwork, the various illustrations connect with the text of each story by way of being supportive. Emotion, expression, and movement are transmitted to the reader via the illustrations. By hypothetically removing the narration and text from each book in the Van Allsburg collection, an illustrated wordless book is created; however, by hypothetically removing the illustrations and leaving the text, the stories, while engaging and interesting, are rendered quite bland in comparison. With the exception of A Bad Day in Riverbend, a line-style work reminiscent of a coloring book complete with scribbles, this reviewer thoroughly enjoys all of the artwork produced by Chris Van Allsburg including the hodge-podge of posters and advertisements generated for organizations, but especially enjoys The Mysteries of Harris Burdick (1984), The Stranger (1986), and three sculptures: Event at the Observatory, Ball Coming to a Skidding Stop, and Cottage of the Horticulturalist.


  • The chronicles of Harris Burdick: Fourteen amazing authors tell the tales. (2011, July). Publisher’s Weekly, 258(30), 54.

Side note: The Room of Requirement by Nicholas Hooper makes me think of Van Allsburg and his books.