Chris Van Allsburg

Chris Van Allsburg


As long as I can remember, I’ve always loved to draw. But my interest in drawing wasn’t encouraged very much. Growing up in the 1950s, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, boys were supposed to be athletic. Certain peer pressures encouraged little fingers to learn how to hold footballs rather than crayons.

My early love for drawing developed into a love for telling stories through pictures. Stories begin as fragments of pictures in my mind. I create a story by posing questions to myself. I call it the “what if” and “what then” approach. For example, for my book Jumanji, I started out by thinking “What if two bored children discovered a board game? What if the board game came to life? What then?” The Polar Express began with the idea of a train standing alone in the woods. I asked myself, “What if a boy gets on that train? Where does he go?” After the boy got on, I tried different destinations out in my mind. “What about north? Who lives in the north?” Then ideas of Christmas, Santa Claus, and faith began to take shape.

From the time I come up with the idea, write and illustrate the book, and deliver it to the printer, it takes about seven months. First, I begin thinking of the idea (asking myself what if and what then). Then I imagine the pictures and the story. A good picture book should have events that are visually arresting – the pictures should call attention to what is happening in the story. I first consider scenes that are exciting to look at and then my challenge is to weave a story around those pictures. The next step is putting the illustrations and story down on paper. At that point, it becomes intense work – all day, every day, even on weekends!

When you first look at my illustrations, you see ordinary, everyday things. But if you look closer, things might not seem quite so simple. When I’m writing a book, I always try to create something strange or puzzling in each picture. By using artistic strategies of perspective, light, and point of view, I can give the drawing a kind of mysterious quality. In other words, the style I use allows me to make a drawing that has a little mystery to it, even if the actual things I am drawing are not strange or mysterious.

A good story must contain a psychological, emotional, or moral premise. I never set out to establish this when I begin a story, but it’s always there when I end. The Polar Express became a story about faith. Jumanji is a cautionary tale, but it also shows kids that when they are frightened, they can perservere and find a solution. The Garden of Abdul Gasazi compares illusion to real magic. And Two Bad Ants says something about being faithful to your own nature.

Also, good stories — particularly in picture books — should make readers wonder about the outcome of the story. Ideally, in a picture book, the pictures and narrative work together to engage the imagination of the reader.

I have always been interested in plots. By plots, I mean what goes on in the story and how a sequence of events has an impact on the lives of the characters. I want my stories, my plots, to unfold as pieces of a puzzle, and on the last page I want all the pieces to fit quite definitively together. Today, many picture books do not have plots. The story is only a simple description of events.

In a good picture book there should be events that are visually arresting; the pictures should call attention to what is happening. For me, as a picture book artist, I first consider scenes that are visually captivating, and my challenge is to weave a story around those pictures.

All of my books are picture books, so they are generally thought of as books for children. But when I make them, I think of the books as being for everybody – for people of all ages. When I was a kid, I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up, but now I’m really glad I became an artist and a storyteller.

Chris Van Allsburg

Chris Van Allsburg