Wherever author Chris Van Allsburg’s name appears in a review, there’s a good chance the word “dark” will be attached to his picture books, but Van Allsburg isn’t so sure his work is very dark at all.
“When I contemplate how dark my imagination can be and what I end up putting in books, this is bright, high-noon sunshine that I’m making,” Van Allsburg said. “There’s a little jeopardy in many of the books and a lot of them have to do with losing things or getting lost and having to find your way back, or something along those lines. Sometimes the stories aren’t clearly resolved. They may strike people as dark because they are comparing them to the bright, bright sunlight that’s typical for most children’s stories.”
Van Allsburg will appear at the Eric Carle Museum in Amherst on Sunday, Nov. 10, for a sold-out talk and a book signing at 2 p.m.
Van Allsburg sees that his picture books can elicit tension and uncertainty, but points out those run counter to a huge portion of the children’s book market and the purpose of it.
“It’s a fact that there are books that are created to comfort children, that the parents can read with children that will help children get through a difficult time,” Van Allsburg said. “The most obvious difficult time is trying to get to sleep, and there’s a whole genre of books that are meant to make them calm, feel secure, so they can go to sleep. When I contemplate that, I don’t think I’m capable of writing a book like that. I may be, but my impulse is to do something that keeps a child awake, rather than puts a child to sleep.”
Uncertainty is an unusual thing to address in picture books for a number of reasons, but the most obvious is that it’s such a subtle state to be in — and expressing that psychological space without making it terrifying requires a certain mastery of the form. Van Allsburg has long proven himself capable of such subtlety and it’s clear that books like “Jumanji,” “The Stranger,” “The Wretched Stone” and others offer a chance for contemplation and concentration of the book being read in a literary and visual sophistication that Van Allsburg has managed to create his very own niche in the world of children’s picture books.
“That might simply be the result of telling stories that have as a goal not simply pacifying a child, but stimulating them, and, at the same time, providing images that encourage lingering for a little bit to simply record them,” he said. “I have this idea that a drawing should contain all the information it does. The result is going to be a lot of kids will be ready to absorb it, they’ll want to look at it, either once they’ve decoded the part of the picture that has to do with the text, they may linger and look at the picture a little bit longer to figure out why it looks like it does.”
From his very first book, “The Garden of Abdul Gasazi,” Van Allsburg appeared fully formed in his work, and he credits this to a total, and possibly naive, disregard for what was required of him to create a children’s book at all.
“The path I took to becoming a storyteller and picture maker was somewhat different than most people who actually familiarize themselves with the field, the traditions, the classics, the techniques,” Van Allsburg said. “They probably read quite a few books while they’re developing their own voice and their own style. But I didn’t get involved in children’s books because of a passionate interest in them. It was, for me, a lark, and the result of that was that I wasn’t particularly well-educated in children’s books. So I had the most basic, rudimentary understanding of what a picture book would be, and that would be a very, very short story that was accompanied by 13 or 14 pictures and that’s what constituted a book. I didn’t have any clear idea of what kind of subject matter should be dealt with, what the pictures should look like. I didn’t look at a lot of picture books.”
He had seen picture books, certainly, and as he was being encouraged by his wife to create his own, she had brought some home for him to look at. He glanced at the examples, but continued on his own path.
“If I had looked at a lot of those, maybe more than I did, and actually tried to do an analysis, that suggested to me if these are things being published, then I had to adhere to a kind of a model and that model would not have included fairly detailed rendering in charcoal pencil,” said Van Allsburg. “I didn’t see anything much like that when I started out, and if I had been more comprehensive in my study and analysis of picture books, I probably would’ve just thrown up my hands and said, ‘Well, nothing that I’m capable of doing is likely to find either a publisher or an audience just based on what I see in print.’ Because I didn’t do a really big analysis and because I wasn’t driven forward by this profound ambition to be a published picture book artist, I just went ahead and did what I knew how to do, which was draw in charcoal, and actually only discovered in writing the first story the kind of story I might be inclined to tell, which was a story that didn’t have a clear resolution.”
As writing influences, Van Allsburg has said Mad Magazine and “The Twilight Zone” offer some guiding principles in his writing, but his imagination has continued to flow over the last nearly 25 years, leading to 18 picture books total and films like “Jumanji” and “The Polar Express.” The groundwork was all there in “The Garden of Abdul Gasazi.”
“That book dealt with, I discovered after I finished, a comparison of stage magic to genuine magic,” Van Allsburg said. “It’s one thing to sit down and say, ‘Well that’s an interesting theme, I wonder if I can sit down and write a story to address it,’ but that was not the case, I was just simple writing a story of three figures, a boy, a dog, and a magician, that’s simply where I ended up, but subsequent to doing that, the other stories are in that same sort of vein of questioning things, presenting fantasies that might provoke the imagination but not finally provide all the answers you need.”
Van Allsburg’s ultimate mystery story, “The Mysteries of Harris Burdick” was experimental in its a format, a collection of cryptic pages from the work of the non-existent Burdick, which left it to the reader to make up his or her own mind about what the pages meant. Over the years, the book has fueled the imaginations of children in ways no other picture book ever has before.
“I’d gotten thousands of stories from kids in classrooms,” said Van Allsburg. “Teachers use the book to do creative writing, and then they send the results to me, so over the last 20 years or so, I’ve read many, many, many Burdick stories. They end up getting a little tiny bit of Burdick DNA, which they then have to combine with their own.”
That book ended up with an adaptation different from the films Van Allsburg has seen made of his books — a short story anthology called “The Chronicles of Harris Burdick,” bringing together writers like Stephen King, Cory Doctorow, Jules Feiffer, Lemony Snicket and Van Allsburg himself, writing their own interpretations of what Burdick’s original pages alluded to.
“It’s not surprising that the range and tone of the work varied so greatly, because it was 14 other people,” Van Allsburg said. “I guess my general impression of it was that the stories were actually pretty good, which meant that the idea that I had of getting Burdick’s pictures and captions in other people’s hands would trigger their imagination in a particular way.”
Van Allsburg continues to explore the complicated areas of childhood with the book he is currently working on, this time casting a child in the role of authority — perhaps even antagonist — in order to create even more conflict and uncertainty. This time, the story centers on a hamster who is left in his cage in the pet store because he is so ill-tempered.
“He’s the last one there and is chosen by a little girl who takes him home and it’s downhill from there,” he said. “The interesting thing about it is that it has as its protagonist a small animal, and that’s almost uniformly in children’s books a proxy for the child reader.
“The child will identify will the small, vulnerable animal, because that’s them, but the antagonists in the story are children.
“Ordinarily when you see yourself represented or someone who’s your age or maybe your gender, you identify with them, but when there’s a tiny animal there, you wonder, who am I? Am I the kid or am I the little animal?”