Chris Van Allsburg - Illustrator
Chris Van Allsburg has created some truly beloved books, including Jumanji, The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, and The Polar Express, which is being turned into a movie to be released in November 2004. Read RIF's interview with Chris and learn why he likes open-ended stories and how a love for science and math has helped his art.
RIF: In high school, you gravitated toward math and science. Did those interests help your art?
Chris Van Allsburg: I believe there’s a rationality that’s a part of math and science. I bring a fairly high level of rationality to making art. When I tell stories, I like them to have a kind of logic. Even though the stories are fantasies, I feel they have to have a strong kind of internal logic. When I create art, I use the laws of perspective and light to make pictures that are convincing. The things I’m depicting never happened, but it’s a very logical approach to showing what’s in my imagination.
RIF: When you're creating a story, do you think of it first as words or images?
CVA: I suppose the images, but that doesn’t mean I see a bunch of pictures and I don’t know what the story is. As I tell myself the story, it sort of presents itself as a series of images. When I finally sit down to write, I’m not simply putting the words on paper to create a story. I’m describing what I’ve already seen in my imagination.
RIF: Are you working on any books at the moment?
CVA: There are a few things on my drawing table. When I have enough free time to do a book, I usually have about six ideas and I’ll play around with all of them until I find the one that has the most promise, the most appeal at the moment, the one that says “draw me.”
I can’t remember sitting down and pulling up a story that I thought of years before. If I’ve got an idea in my head and I don’t use it for a couple years, it seems to dry up and go away.
RIF: What part did you play in the making of The Polar Express movie?
CVA: I didn’t have a big part. I’m an executive producer, which meant that I was able to interact with the process, but I couldn’t greatly influence it. Unlike with Jumanji (the movie version), I never felt there were times where I wanted to influence The Polar Express. The filmmakers showed such respect and fidelity to the book. The film looks remarkably like the book. This film embodies not simply the narrative and theme of the story, but it actually looks like the pictures.
I was involved from the outside in the development of the script. I’m aware of the elaborations of the story that are now embedded in the film. It’s still remarkably like the book. The elaboration takes place mostly through the difficulty of the trip itself. I’m happy to report that it doesn’t include any antagonist characters trying to derail the train, but it’s the difficulty of getting the train there on time through this landscape. You’re introduced to more children on the train on the way up. There’s a group of kids and a few odd characters.
RIF: Did you read to your daughters?
CVA: I don’t read to them as much as I did when they were younger. They’re 13 and 9. On occasion I read my own books. They thought it was funny that I was reading my own books to them. They didn’t take it seriously.
RIF: What were your favorite books as a kid?
CVA: The one I remember best is Harold and the Purple Crayon. I don’t remember many others. That’s one that really made an impression on me. Some people are surprised when I mention that one because it has such a simple illustration style, not very much like my own. I liked the book so much because it succeeds so well on a conceptual level. It’s a great example as the picture book as art that functions effectively because of the cleverness of the idea.
RIF: What do kids say when they write you letters?
CVA: Because my books are somewhat unresolved or suggest there’s something else that might happen, I get a lot of questions about what might have happened. I never answer those questions. I like something a little mysterious about the story.
The endings are pretty much unresolved in my own imagination. In my first book [The Garden of Abdul Gasazi], there’s an event on the last page that has a couple different options. The book is about your interpretation, whether you think the young boy has been fooled or whether he’s seen real magic. In Jumanji, on the last page of the book, there are two boys, Danny and Walter, who run off with this game and we know the chaos they can produce. It looks like bad news. I’ve gotten lots of questions from kids and their own hypothesizes about what happened to Danny and Walter. There’s something about that kind of a question mark that appeals to me as a writer and a reader. When you close the book, it’s not over.
RIF: Can you really play a recorder with your nose?
CVA: I can and it’s no big deal really. You have to have breath control and you have to have that anyway to play with your mouth. I taught myself.
Learn more about Chris Van Allsburg or get in touch with him!