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  • Writer's pictureChristina Francine

Chris Van Allsburg Knows How to Capture Children’s Attention & Get Them to Read


Christina Francine

What is it that captures children’s interest about Chris Van Allsburg’s work? His ideas are only part of his ingenuity. The other part is his flare with illustrations. They appear alive and authentic. It’s as if characters and objects moved moments ago out of the corner of the eye. Allburg has published many children’s picture books and they all have an ability to blur the lines between real life and art, to take readers’ hands and coax them into an exciting journey. Three of his books became major motion pictures: The Polar Express, Jumanji, and Zathura, A Space Adventure.

Maybe his flare is with how his illustrations mimic real life and real people. A reoccurring theme he uses is fantasy bordering on Twilight Zonish that also borders on impressionism. “Impressionism is mainly where the emphasis is on light in its changing qualities ordinary subject matter, and unusual visual angles” (Pioch 3). The work also lacks strong lines that focus attention on specific areas (Pioch 3). Capturing children’s interest in reading can be a challenge, especially with all the competition vying for their attention, but if any artist can do it, that artist is Chris Van Allsburg whose style is the key.

Van Allsburg’s overall style contains life-like moving objects and characters. His work “captures a childlike guilelessness – a sort of defenseless and vulnerable fantasizing that comes very close to a dream,” says picture book expert Nodelman (109). Van Allsburg communicates through his work, something many people like. His work is “Capable of powerfully affecting viewers for more than (his) simple stories ought to because (it) speaks symbolically to a level of human understanding that is below consciousness – or at least children’s consciousness” (Nodelman 109). Allsburg’s work does this partly through his expertise with shadowing, which may have resulted from his degree in sculpture. He obtained this degree before venturing into drawing. Van Allsburg says, “I’ve built models of things I’m going to draw. I might need to figure out just how shadow will fall on them when light comes from different angles” (Cummings 82).

Size plays a major role in Van Allsburg’s life-like illustrations too. Most of his books measure around 10” x 11,” give or take. Though not large, they are good sized books. Nodelman says “We tend to expect rambunctious, energetic stories” (44) from larger books, as opposed to “charm and delicacy” from smaller ones. Although Van Allsburg’s books are not overly big, they

produce more vigor than say a book the size of Peter Rabbit.

Picture from The Tale of Peter Rabbit

Since Van Allsburg chose a larger size, maybe he wanted room for more effect, and since his illustrations contain a lot of detail, this may account for the larger physical size. It’s as if he wants us aware of the picture’s subtleties and details. Of the four: A City in Winter, Jumanji, The Polar Express, and The Stranger, for example, the smallest is A City in Winter. Jumanji measures about 10” x 11,” The Polar Express about 19” ¼ x 11 ½, “The Stranger about 9 ¼ “ x “10 ¾ , while A City in Winter about 10” x 8.” Size is important, yet not detrimental.

Height and width play a major role in the life-like quality of Van Allsburg’s illustrations as well. In looking at the four books mentioned, three are wider than they are high. In keeping Nodleman’s point in mind that people are “higher than they are wide” (46), and that “We learn much of character through the details of background,” Van Allsburg puts focus on the relationship between characters and their environment. Nodleman adds these types of illustrations “ask us to take an attitude of detachment, to stand back objectively and interpret characters in terms of details of their settings” (46). This translates into having more empathy with the characters depicted. Though A City Winter is taller than it is wide, the illustrations still manage to provide plenty of detail. When looking at fourteen of Van Allsburg’s picture books, ten are taller than wide, leaving four wider than tall. Maybe readers prefer wider than tall books.

Framing helps with reality functions also. Three of the four books use framing. Three of the books frame the words. Nodleman teaches that “books which take an objective, unemotional view of the events they describe often have frames around all their pictures – sometimes around the words of their texts” (51). This creates symmetry and balance. Many readers like balance and evenness, so Van Allsburg’s choices are not surprising. Many readers like tidiness and order, another thing framing pictures and texts does. Frames additionally create the feeling of a glimpse into another world and of “intense activity that seems mysteriously inactive.” Combined with the tidiness of the white framing, the intense activity adds to their paradoxical nature and emphasize mystery.

Example of framing

Picture from Jumanji

Van Allsburg chose various placements for pictures and text and in A City in Winter, the text is always on the left side and the illustration on the right. This is one of the two most common arrangements (242). The text is equal in size to the illustration too. Nodelman says “This creates balance of the spread” (Nodelman 54). Most people look at a picture first, and the text second. When the text is on the left side of a two-page spread, the author and illustrator assume we will look at the picture again after reading the text. “Consequently,” says Nodelman. “The basic pattern by which most of us look at picture books must be something like this: first picture, then words, then the same picture again, then turn the page” (243).

Van Allsburg uses different patterns in different stories, thus creating different effects. Of the four, A City Winter, Jumanji, The Polar Express, and The Stranger, only one does not place the text of every two pages onto the left, and the picture onto the right. In The Polar Express the text is small however; only three to six sentences for each section and there is rhythm, as there are with the others. A sequence of beats is noted and established. When there is not balance between text and illustration, and more white space occupies a page than text, this “Adds to the dramatic tension of the story” (Nodelman 54). In The Stranger, the text is unequal to the partnering illustration on each page, but the text itself is always about the same size. This means when reading this story about the same amount of time is spent on one page as with another. One is not meant for more time than another. “The story tend(s) to move forward in equal increments. Each text ends on each page and the last thing is a period, unlike in Where the Wild Things Are by Sendak. These pages end their text in the middle of a sentence.

“A sentence must be complete before we can hope to understand it, and this one is not completed until we turn the page. But, readers cannot turn the page until they have spent some time looking at the picture” (Nodelman 249-250).Nodelman adds, “In this way, Sendak creates a tension that increases our interest and involvement in the story” (250). Jumanji completes the text with a period on each page; however, the size of the text is not equal in size. This disrupts the rhythm, which is not surprising when you consider the story. The characters experience unusual and disrupting circumstances. In this way, interrupting the readers’ rhythm ensures they feel disruption too.

The colors and lack of colors Van Allsburg uses in the four books play an active importance in giving life to his work. Three of the four are in color and one in black and white. Of the three with color, the colors that dominate are warm browns, yellows, tans, and reds. What is most important about these choices is the hue and shade. Nodleman adds, “Pictures that use dark shades seem both somber and cozier than lighter pictures” (65). Allsburg uses dark shades. By using darker shades of yellows, tans, reds, and browns, Van Allsburg creates a feeling of somberness and of coziness. Readers feel warmth from the monochromatic browns and protectiveness from the equal use of browns with reds. On the down side, they can be labeled as brooding (Nodelman 66).

Picture from Widow's Broom

Van Allsburg uses other colors that imply other meaning, but the blues, yellows, and greens are tempered with brown tones. In The Polar Express, where the boy looks for the bell in his pocket on the train, Van Allsburg uses predominately muted red and lavender laced with a sprinkling of pink, green, and white. Purple is often “Associated in picture books with fantasy” (Nodelman 62). The color also implies “stateliness and dignity” (Nodelman 63) too. Note that the lavender is tinted and not bright, changing the implications a little. Red is often associated with protectiveness. Since the boy is searching for a bell from Santa, something sacred to children, we see them as protective of him and worried about the bell. They are watching out for him.

In A City Winter on page 120, the yellows, flesh-like pink, and whites are all blended with browns too. Note the number of brown items: the barrels, the boxes, the beams on the ceiling. This picture is one of action, yet readers aren’t worried. The yellow combined with the expression of the man on the right, create a happy and calm message to balance the frightening action of one man getting his head smashed into the wall. In The Stranger, less brown is used, although there is some.

Readers find the table and the woman’s face are brown. Though less brown is used, the illustrations use darker shades as the other mentioned books do. Here, a brighter pink and yellow with a little blue is used, which lighten the mood. Pink is cheerful, yellow too, and blue melancholy. Since the woman wears a green dress and the picture contains brown, the combination implies organic richness. This balances out the stranger’s confusion. In Jumanji, there is black, white, and gray only. There is no color. Even so, the illustrations imply numerous messages. Nodelman states that using black and white sends a “matter-of-fact reporting of utterly nonfactual events” (68). Jumanji does provide the sense that we see the bare facts – the conviction that real things are happening. “Van Allsburg achieve/s a sense of reality by imitating and thus evoking our conventional expectations of conventionally realistic depictions” (Nodelman 68). Black and white is more serious and “demands our mental activity” (68). In other words, viewers need to become more involved with this story.

Picture from Ben's Dream

The depiction of action and dimension works extremely well in giving life to Van Allsburg’s illustrations. This makes it impossible to not like them. An explosion of detail aids the art as well. This makes “Van Allsburg’s (work) seem so different from those commonly found in more typical picture books” (Nodelman149). He invites readers “to pursue and consider the implications of settings” (149). Is it any wonder viewers examine the detail of the spreads for long periods? It is evident that Allsburg’s great detail begs assessment. The way he places his characters draws the eye as well, and breathes life into them. The eye goes to the girl’s face on page fourteen in Jumanji. Then, it moves down to the board-game. Next, the eye moves out to the left and to where the chimpanzees sit watching the girl. This seems to create movement. The rain falls starting from above and from the right in a slanted way. This too creates movement. In A City in Winter, readers have caught the three characters in the middle of action. One has just smashed another into the wall. He is not about to. He did moments ago. The guy on the right looks to see who might be coming. In this way, time has stopped. Readers automatically guess what happened moments before.

Picture from A City Winter

In The Polar Express, the girls with the blond hair on the left are in the middle of waiting for the boy. The girl next to her looks away concerned that he cannot find the bell. The other children look too. Notice the boy on the right in green pajamas is in the middle of placing his hands to his mouth, the eyes of the child in the backseat peers up and over, and the snow outside the window is blasting by. Since the snow appears to blow across as opposed to down, readers know the train is moving quickly. Nodelman quotes Gyorgy Kepes in supporting this, “The eye, following the line, acts as if it were on the path of a moving thing and attributes to the line the quality of movement” (160). In The Stranger, the man sits. He is not in the middle of action, but the woman is. The steam seems to rise from the soup. Another energy happens here however. This is emotional activity or unmoving visual imagery (Nodelman 168). In this picture the Stranger’s eyes tell readers a lot. Readers can tell the room is relatively quiet except for the sound of soup being served. “The depictions of still figures that convey intense emotional activity,” says Nodelman, “actually convey a sense of stillness” (168). Being human, readers pay close attention to the expressions of others. Readers derive information from this Stranger’s eyes, posture, and lack of movement. He is not smiling either. The tilt of his head, along with these other things, all imply a highly charged moment.

The depiction of action comes from Van Allsburg’s use of shadowing. This especially plays a role in his work. He uses shadows well, manipulating pictures so that they appear three-dimensional. In turn, how light falls onto the pictures enliven them. Readers’ attention goes toward the light. Besides this Stranger’s face, attention is on the large bowl of soup and the one intended for the Stranger. By using darkness in the background, combined with light shown on the Stanger’s face, isolation and despair is communicated (Nodelman 154). His face and the large bowl are the brightest pieces in this illustration. These are what the focus is on.

Though there is much competing for children’s attention, artists such as Chris Van Allsburg, can get them interested in books. Children learn how to read from a book. This opens doors children will continue to step through into adulthood. They can learn about things that interest them when they can’t do them physically. Books allow children to role play too. Children can pretend to be anyone, go anywhere, be in any time-period. Books enhance children’s social skills. Though reading can be solitary, reading can also be social as well. Books can foster discussion more so than the Internet, a video game, or television can. Books also build children’s spirits, provide information, help to pass time, add to the development of their culture, help them to write better, open their minds to other cultures, and may some day enhance their ability to earn a living. This is not possible though if the book doesn’t grab and hold children’s attention. When the illustrations seem almost alive and trains appear to move out of the corner of the eye, books are interesting. This is why illustrators like Chris Van Allsburg are important. His work mimics real-life and invites children to hold out their hand and allow Van Allsburg to take them on a journey – one that is a little twilight zonish, but none-the-less, one that lasts a life-time.

Three more of Chris Van Allsburg's books:

Works Cited

Allsburg, Chris Van. Ben’s Dream. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1982.

Allsburg, Chris Van. Two Bad Aunts. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1988.

Allsburg, Chris Van. Jumanji. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1981.

Allsburg, Chris Van. The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1984.

Allsburg, Chris Van. The Polar Express. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1985.

Allsburg, Chris Van. The Stranger. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1986.

Allsburg, Chris Van. The Sweetest Fig. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1993.

Allsburg, Chris Van and Mark Helprin. The Veil of Snows. New York: Viking Penguin Group, 1997.

Allsburg, Chris Van. The Widow’s Broom. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1992.

Allsburg, Chris Van. The Wreck of the Zephyr. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1983.

Allsburg, Chris Van. The Wretched Stone. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1991.

Allsburg, Chris Van. Zathura. A Space Adventure. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002.

Allsburg, Chris Van. The Z Was Zapped. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1987.

Cummings, Pat Ed. Talking with Artists. New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 1992.

Helprin, Mark. A City in Winter. New York: Penguin Group, 1996.

Pioch, Nicolas. “Impressionism.” Web Museum. 19 June 2006. BMW Foundation. 24 Mar. 2008, .


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