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Chris Van Allsburg (1949-) Biography

Personal, Addresses, Career, Member, Honors Awards, Writings, Adaptations, Sidelights

Born 1949, in Grand Rapids, MI; Education: University of Michigan, B.F.A., 1972; Rhode Island School of Design, M.F.A., 1975. Religion: Jewish. Hobbies and other interests: "When I'm not drawing, I enjoy taking walks and going to museums. I play tennis a few times a week, like to sail—although I have fewer opportunities to do it now (I used to have more friends with boats). I read quite a lot."


Agent—c/o Author Mail, Houghton Mifflin, 222 Berkeley St., Boston, MA 02116-3764.


Artist; author and illustrator of children's books. Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, RI, teacher of illustration, 1977—. Exhibitions: Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY; Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY; Alan Stone Gallery, New York, NY; Grand Rapids Art Museum, Grand Rapids, MI; American Institute of Graphic Arts Book Show, 1983, 1984 1985; and Port Washington Public Library, NY.


Honors Awards

Best Illustrated Children's Books citations, New York Times, 1979, for The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, 1981, for Jumanji, 1982, for Ben's Dream, 1983, for The Wreck of the Zephyr, 1984, for The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, 1985, for The Polar Express, and 1986, for The Stranger; Caldecott Honor Book citation, American Library Chris Van Allsburg Association (ALA), and Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for illustration, both 1980, and International Board on Books for Young People citation for illustration, 1982, all for The Garden of Abdul Gasazi; Irma Simonton Black Award, Bank Street College of Education, 1980, for The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, and 1985, for The Mysteries of Harris Burdick; New York Times Outstanding Books citations, 1981, for Jumanji, and 1983, for The Wreck of the Zephyr; Caldecott Medal, ALA, 1982, for Jumanji, and 1986, for The Polar Express; Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for illustration, 1982, for Jumanji, 1985, for The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, and 1986, for The Polar Express; Children's Choice Award, International Reading Association, and American Book Award for illustration, Association of American Publishers, both 1982, Kentucky Bluegrass Award, Northern Kentucky University, and Buckeye Children's Book Award, Ohio State Library, both 1983, Washington Children's Choice Picture Book Award, Washington Library Media Association, 1984, and West Virginia Children's Book Award, 1985, all for Jumanji; Parents' Choice Award for Illustration, Parents' Choice Foundation, 1982, for Ben's Dream, 1984, for The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, 1985, for The Polar Express, 1986, for The Stranger, 1987, for The Z Was Zapped, and 1992, for The Widow's Broom; Kentucky Bluegrass Award, 1987, for The Polar Express; One Hundred Titles for Reading and Sharing designation, New York Public Library, 1983, for The Wreck of the Zephyr, and 1985, for The Polar Express; Ten Best Picture Books for Kids, Redbook, and Children's Books of the Year, Child Study Association, and Hans Christian Andersen Award nomination, all 1985, all for The Polar Express; Children's Books of the Year, Child Study Association, 1987, for The Stranger; Colorado's Children's Book Award runner-up, 1990, Virginia Young Readers Award, and Washington Children's Choice Award, both 1991, and Georgia Children's Picture Storybook Award, 1992, all for Two Bad Ants; Regina Medal for lifetime achievement.



The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1979.

Jumanji, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1981.

Ben's Dream, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1982.

The Wreck of the Zephyr, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1983.

The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1984.

The Polar Express, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1985, tenth anniversary edition, 1995.

The Stranger, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1986.

The Z Was Zapped: A Play in Twenty-six Acts, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1987.

Two Bad Ants, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1988.

Just a Dream, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1990.

The Wretched Stone, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1991.

The Widow's Broom, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1992.

The Sweetest Fig, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1993.

Bad Day at Riverbend, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1995.

Zathura: A Space Adventure, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2002.


Mark Helprin, Swan Lake, Houghto Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1989.

Mark Helprin, A City in Winter, Viking (New York, NY), 1996.

Mark Helprin, The Veil of Snows, Viking (New York, NY), 1997.

A selection of Van Allsburg's work is held in the Kerlan Collection at the University of Minnesota.


Several of Van Allsburg's books have been adapted for audio cassette. Jumanji was adapted for a movie of the same title starring Robin Williams, 1995; The Polar Express is available on CD-ROM; inspired an orchestra score by Robert Kapilow, 1998; and was adapted by Robert Zemeckis and William Broyles, Jr., as a computer-animated movie of the same title featuring the voice of Tom Hanks, 2004.


Two-time Caldecott Medal-winner Chris Van Allsburg has drawn readers into a magical, even surreal, world through his illustrated picture books, which include Jumanji and its sequel, Zathura, as well as Two Bad Ants and The Polar Express. "While most children's literature remains steeped in saccharin morality tales," Linnea Lannon noted in the Detroit Free Press Sunday Magazine, "Van Allsburg has found critical acclaim and commercial success with children's books that embrace the mystery and randomness of life." In addition to the many awards Van Allsburg has garnered for his unique, even quirky tales, he has also made illustrating and writing children's books a distinctly profitable profession and has been hailed for revolutionizing book illustration to boot. His most popular book, The Polar Express, has become a Christmas classic around the world, and was made into a feature film in 2004. Van Allsburg's first Caldecott Medal book, Jumanji, was the first book to go Hollywood, however; it was adapted as a feature film in 1995. The major theme in Van Allsburg's books is not that either good or bad things can happen in life, but that strange, inexplicable things can occur; the author/illustrator sees his books as challenging rather than comforting. As Stephanie Loer recounted in Children's Books and Their Creators, "Van Allsburg's illustrations never fail to fascinate the intellect, pique the senses, and emphasize the power of imagination."

Born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 1949, Van Allsburg "liked to do the normal kid things like playing baseball and building model cars, trucks, and planes," as he once told Something about the Author (SATA). Raised in the suburbs, Van Allsburg had access to open fields and dirt roads, riding his bike to school and catching tadpoles in the nearby creeks. Early reading included the Dick, Jane, and Spot books, as well as Crockett Johnson's Harold and the Purple Crayon, and he was also an avid fan of comic books. Drawing provided early diversion for Van Allsburg, but as he got older, art took a back seat to sports. "I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up," he recalled. "I thought I'd be a lawyer, mostly because I couldn't think of anything else." However, as high-school graduation approached, he once again began to focus on art as a possible vocation, and decided to enroll at the University of Michigan School of Art and Design.

In college Van Allsburg was particularly taken with sculpture, and upon graduating from the University of Michigan he enrolled at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), where he earned a master's degree in fine art. For several years afterward he made his living as an artist, with well-received shows in New York, and also taught illustration at RISD. Slowly his interest in art broadened to include drawing as well as sculpture. "A friend of mine who illustrated books saw my drawings and encouraged me to consider illustration," Van Allsburg told SATA. His wife, then working as an elementary school teacher, also encouraged him to consider illustrating, introducing him to children's picture books. Van Allsburg began to find his own expression in both illustration and writing, opting initially for black and white, and in text, choosing prose over verse.

Published in 1979, Van Allsburg's first book, The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, tells the story of a young boy whose curious dog—a white bull terrier that has gone on to become something of a signature for Van Allsburg—runs away into the bizarre garden of a magician that is filled with topiary creatures. Critics immediately responded to the eerie, dreamlike quality of the book's black-and-white illustrations, Booklist contributor Barbara Elleman noting the illustrator's ability to "provide an underlying quality of hushed surrealism, seemingly poised at the brink of expectancy." Paul Heins, a reviewer for Horn Book, compared Van Allsburg's "stippled tones of gray and the precisely outlined figures" to the pointillist technique of nineteenth-century French impressionist painter Georges Seurat. Named a Caldecott Honor Book, The Garden of Abdul Gasazi exhibits the combination of edgy, challenging story and slightly unsettling illustration that has become Van Allsburg's trademark. The puzzle motif that informs much of his work is also introduced here: the reader is left to contemplate the possibility that the runaway dog was changed into a fowl by the magician.In addition to several awards, The Garden of Abdul Gasazi brought Van Allsburg "almost instantaneous recognition in the field of illustration," according to Dictionary of Literary Biography essayist Laura Ingram. This reception came as a surprise to the artist, who thought the book would sell a few copies, with the remaining left to give to family and friends as Christmas presents. Instead, The Garden of Abdul Gasazi headed its creator on a new career. He has continued to write and illustrate each of his titles, breaking from that tradition only once, to join writer Mark Helprin in a three-part fantasy series based on Tchaikovsky's famous ballet "Swan Lake." Focusing on a queen who leads a battle to preserve her country against an evil usurper, the author and illustrator spin their story in Swan Lake, A City in Winter, and The Veil of Snows. While reviewers found the text of the series somewhat muddled, a Publishers Weekly reviewer dubbed the "richly magical paintings" illustrating The Veil of Snows as "among Van Allsburg's best work."

Puzzles and magic—as well as a white bull terrier—find their way into Van Allsburg's second picture book. In Jumanji a decidedly uncooperative magic intrudes into the domesticity of a suburban home when bored siblings Judy and Peter suddenly get more action than they bargained for while playing a board game. The two-dimensional jungle adventures of the game become real, with lions materializing in the living room and monkeys in the kitchen. The surreal game only comes to an end when Judy finally reaches the Golden City—the goal of the game. Again illustrated in charcoal pencil, this second book won the Caldecott Medal. "Van Allsburg's pictures," commented Ingram, "which at first glance could be mistaken for photographs, are impressive not only for their realism but for the skill with which he manipulates light and shadow to create a vaguely unsettling mood, and for the odd angles which present disconcerting views of common scenes." This cinematic effect, a tip of the hat to the films of twentieth-century director and actor Orson Welles, has been noted by more than one reviewer. The final frame in Jumani shows the magical board game, which Judy and Peter have deposited across the street in an empty park, being carried off by a pair of rapscalliony brothers, Danny and Walter Budwing. Fans of the book had to wait twenty-one years for Van Allsburg to answer the tantalizing question: What happened next? In Zathura: A Space Adventure the Budwing brothers open the box, and find, under the Jumanji game a second game decorated with flying saucers, space ships, and planets. Although readers are not caught unawares, Danny and Walter are when they suddenly find themselves hurled into a space adventure after a single roll of the dice, and Van Allsburg's heavily textured and patterned pencil drawings "create a claustrophobic intimacy that magnifies the danger" of being lost forever in space, according to Horn Book contributor Betty Carter. Praising Zathura as "masterfully executed," Wendy Lukehart pointed to the book's underlying theme of sibling rivalry, noting in her School Library Journal review that "savvy readers will recognize" that Danny and Walter's "lack of camaraderie does not bode well" in Van Allsburg's "surreal story."

In The Wreck of the Zephyr, Van Allsburg's first full-color book, he uses pastel over paint. As he noted on his Web site, although he was not trained in painting when he first started his illustration career, "as time went by, I became more interested in picture making, and taught myself to use different materials," such as "dry and oil pastels, craypas, crayons, colored pencils, and paint. Now I decide if a book should be black and white or color as a result of how I imagine the story while I am thinking about it." The Wreck of the Zephyr is a story-within-a-story: the narrator tells of a boy who was the best sailor in his town. Stranded on an island during a storm, he uses magical powers to fly his ship home. In the end, the reader is left to wonder if the aged narrator is, in fact, the boy-sailor of the tale. John Russell, reviewing the book in the New York Times Book Review, compared Van Allsburg's illustrations to the work of French painter René Magritte, while noting that the book's "text is as spare, as sober and telling as ever." Margery Fisher, writing in Growing Point, dubbed The Wreck of the Zephyr a "joyous celebration of change and mystery."

Van Allsburg chose black-and-white illustration with The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, a wordless book for which the viewer is prompted to build stories by means of suggestive captions. The Mysteries of Harris Burdick was followed by the book that has become the artist's most well-known work: The Polar Express, which presents a full-color, first-person narrative of a little boy who sets off on a mysterious train for the North Pole, where he meets Santa Claus and is presented with a reindeer bell from Santa's sleigh. "When I started The Polar Express," Van Allsburg remarked in a Horn Book transcript of his Caldecott Medal acceptance speech for the book, "I thought I was writing about a train trip, but the story was actually about faith and the desire to believe in something." Denise M. Wilms, writing in Booklist, noted that the book's "Darkened colors, soft edges, and the glow of illuminated snow flurries create a dreamlike adventure that is haunting even as it entertains," and dubbed The Polar Express an "imaginative, engrossing tale of Christmas magic." Popular when it was first published in 1985, the book reached a new generation of readers in its tenth-anniversary edition, as well as in its movie incarnation in 2004.

Fantastic tales and subtle magic appear in Van Allsburg's other titles, including The Stranger, Just a Dream, The Wretched Stone, The Widow's Broom, The Sweetest Fig, Bad Day at Riverbend, and The Z Was Zapped: A Play in Twenty-six Acts, the last an alphabet book with attitude. In The Stranger Farmer Bailey injures a man on the road, takes the stranger home to recuperate, and there learns that the man is mute and without memory. The stranger becomes part of the family, and a few weeks into his stay, the weather turns as warm as summer, though when he abruptly leaves, winter sets in. Every year thereafter, winter comes late to the Bailey farm. Patricia Dooley, writing in School Library Journal, called The Stranger "a down-homey modern myth." Noting the increasingly apparent versatility of the artist, Anne Rice wrote in the New York Times Book Review that it is "marvelous that this master painter and storyteller has added a new dimension to his consistently original and enchanting body of work" with The Stranger.

"Walter will never throw his jelly doughnut wrapper on the street again," declared Roger Sutton in a Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books review of Just a Dream. In this book, a frightening dream takes an environmentally insensitive ten-year-old into a techno-nightmare future where smog chokes the atmosphere and the forests have been reduced to toothpicks. Most reviewers found the message a bit strident, but Van Allsburg's artwork was praised as among the illustrator's best. A better critical response greeted The Wretched Stone, a sea tale involving the sailors of the Rita Ann and their adventures and misadventures under the spell of a magic stone they discover on an uncharted island. The glowing stone turns the crew into monkeys when they stare at it, making them swing through the ship's rigging. Only the sound of the captain playing his violin or reading aloud can bring the crew back to their normal selves. Lee Lorenz, writing in the New York Times, remarked that throughout "his distinguished career, Chris Van Allsburg has challenged, expanded and redefined our notions of what a book for children can be.… He continues to break new ground with The Wretched Stone, which is in some ways his most ambitious work." In his Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books review, Sutton interpreted the book as a parable on the dumbing-down influences of television, and noted in particular the nautical setting, which provides the artist with "plenty of space for his moody pastels, which add a menacing tone to the plain spoken narrative."

The Widow's Broom relates the story of a broom abandoned after it has lost the power of flight. In this book "Van Allsburg explores the nature of good and evil," according to Booklist reviewer Cooper, who concluded that the artwork in the book is some of his "finest: oversize, sepia-tone drawings, with precise linework that has both visual clarity and intriguing nuance." The Sweetest Fig deals with a Parisian dentist named Bibot who is paid in figs for his work—a magical payment, as the fruit will make his dreams come true. A folktale in format, The Sweetest Fig "is a sophisticated picture book," according to Betsy Hearne in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, "but not at the expense of its audience." Readers enter the life of a coloring book bedecked with the squiggles and marks of a child's scribbles in Bad Day at Riverbend. When greasy strings of slime cover the town of Riverbend, Sheriff Ned Hardy gathers a posse and hunts down the villain: a young artist who is busy scribbling with crayon in the coloring book that serves as the town's universe. Reviewing the book in the New York Times, Robin Tzannes called Bad Day at Riverbend "clever and entertaining," and "a good introduction to [Van Allsburg's] … work for the younger readers."

Van Allsburg takes between seven and nine months to create a picture book, and he completes an outline of the text before beginning the fourteen or fifteen drawings in a conventionally laid-out book. He begins his illustrations by creating crude "thumbnail" sketches, reworking them into fine, museum-quality drawings. "I like the idea of withholding something, both in drawings and writing," he once explained to SATA, alluding to the sense of something missing, or something left unfinished, that gives his work its haunting, compelling quality. While he still works as a sculptor, and also teaches, his work as a picture-book author has allowed Van Allsburg to reach a large audience. As he told Lannon in the Detroit Free Press, "every time the book is read, the book happens. I feel, not a sense of power, but a sense of connectedness, I guess. Just to be able to make those books and have them out there, and to know kids are going to take them out and actually have an experience, not identical with the one I had … but they're going to be in a way, captives of my mind and their imagination. That's a stimulation."

Biographical and Critical Sources


Berger, Laura Standley, editor, Twentieth-Century Children's Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1995, pp. 980-981.

Children's Books and Their Creators, edited by Anita Silvey, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1995, pp. 660-662.

Children's Literature Review, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 5, 1983, pp. 231-242; Volume 13, 1987, pp. 201-214.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 61: American Writers for Children since 1960: Poets, Illustrators, and Nonfiction Authors, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1987, pp. 306-313.

Holtze, Sally Holmes, Fifth Book of Junior Authors and Illustrators, H. W. Wilson (Bronx, NY), 1983, pp. 316-317.


Booklist, November 15, 1979, Barbara Elleman, review of The Garden of Abdul Gasazi; October 1, 1985, Denise M. Wilms, review of The Polar Express, pp. 271-272; October 15, 1990, Ilene Cooper, review of Just a Dream, p. 452; October 1, 1991, p. 338; September 15, 1992, Ilene Cooper, review of The Widow's Broom, p. 147; October 15, 1995, p. 413; October 15, 1996, p. 421; November 15, 1997, p. 560.

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, November, 1990, Roger Sutton, review of Just a Dream, p. 72; November, 1991, Roger Sutton, review of The Wretched Stone, p. 78; November, 1993, Betsy Hearne, review of The Sweetest Fig, p. 104.

Detroit Free Press Sunday Magazine, October 22, 1995, Linnea Lannon, "The Van Allsburg Express," pp. 7-9, 12-13, 17.

Growing Point, July, 1984, Margery Fisher, review of The Wreck of the Zephyr, p. 4292.

Horn Book, February, 1980, Paul Heins, review of The Garden of Abdul Gasazi; July-August, 1986, Chris Van Allsburg, "Caldecott Medal Acceptance," pp. 420-424; January-February, 1991, p. 61; January-February, 1992, pp. 62-64; January-February, 1997, p. 57.; Nov-Dec, 2002, Betty Carter, review of Zathura, p. 741.

New York Times, November 10, 1991, Lee Lorenz, review of The Wretched Stone, p. 36; March 24, 1996, Robin Tzannes, review of Bad Day at Riverbend, p. 23.

New York Times Book Review, June 5, 1983, John Russell, review of The Wreck of the Zephyr, p. 34; November 9, 1986, Anne Rice, "Jack Frost's Amnesia," p. 58.

Publishers Weekly, September 9, 1996, p. 84; September 29, 1997, p. 90.

School Library Journal, November, 1986, Patricia Dooley, review of The Stranger, p. 84; February, 1995, p. 18; October, 1995, pp. 121-122; January, 1996, p. 18; November, 1997, pp. 118-119.


Chris Van Allsburg Web site, http://www.chrisvanallsburg.com/ (January 15, 2005).*

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