Inspiring Young Readers

posted on 24 Feb 2017

Chris Van Allsburg

I have to admit that I came to Van Allsburg’s illustrations and children’s books quite late. It was actually the film of The Polar Express that really alerted me to his work and when I realised that he had also been the inspiration for (the less good film) Jumanji then my interest was really piqued. I think the fact that I hadn’t heard of him until then boils down to the way in which some names take a while to cross the Atlantic and make their impact  -  as an American illustrator his profile never seemed to quite breakthrough to the wider public in the UK even though I suspect the children’s book fraternity were well aware of his talents.

Born in 1949 he studied sculpture at the University of Michigan and then the Rhode Island School of Design, going on after graduation to set up his own studio. It was his habit of sketching embryonic designs for his sculpture that led him to think that the style of drawing he was developing might be ideal for children’s book illustration and in 1979 he published his first book called The Garden of Abdul Gasazi.

His background training as a sculptor almost certainly accounts for the very three-dimensional nature of his illustrations – they have heft and texture in a way that gives them an almost solid presence.  I especially like the way Van Allsburg plays with the unexpected and the dangerous – quite a lot of his work focusses on darker issues and motivations and invites younger readers to go on vicarious journeys which often run out of control.

I also love the feel Van Allsburg has for character. The people he creates are really rounded and tangible despite often being absurd and even seemingly impossible – he plays with perspective in ways that suggest human bodies as well as the landscape can be morphed and stretched into exciting new shapes.

Van Allsburg has twice been awarded the Caldecott Medal – once for Polar Express and once for Jumanji – and he has also been nominated for the Hans Christian Andersen Award. Overall he has written or illustrated over 20 books and his work is hugely popular with other artists. Eric Carle has said of Van Allsburg that he is 'one of those artists that has an individual and distinctive style and approach and each one speaks from his soul'.

It could be argued that Van Allsburg’s mode of illustration is made to be filmed and the fact that at least two big Hollywood block-busters have resulted from his books rather underscores that feeling. These are illustrations it’s easy to enter, to walk about inside and to get lost in – sometimes happily and someone’s with a distinct sense of unease.

If you haven’t explored his work yet, you’ve got a treat coming your way and a whole new set landscapes, characters and adventures to spend some time with.


Terry Potter

January 2017