chris van allsburg

Children’s Book Authors: Chris Van Allsburg, From Sculptor to Author

November 09, 2009
by findingDulcinea Staff
Chris Van Allsburg is author and illustrator of famous books like “The Polar Express,” “Jumanji” and “The Garden of Abdul Gasazi.” Taking inspiration from children's sense of wonder, Van Allsburg begins a book by asking himself “what if” and “what then.” The resulting characters, images and storylines are beloved by millions of readers.

Early Artistic Development

Chris Van Allsburg’s imagination was first sparked by images from his childhood: the old farmhouse where he was born, a nearby creamery, and the ponds, fields and trees of the Michigan landscape. “When you first look at my illustrations, you see ordinary, everyday things. But if you look closer, things might not seem quite so simple,” he explains on his official Web site.

Van Allsburg’s family moved frequently while he was growing up, a challenging situation that later proved fortuitous. One of Van Allsburg’s childhood homes was the inspiration for the family house in the best-selling “The Polar Express,” which is among his most popular stories. A slideshow of Van Allsburg’s illustrations, including images from “The Polar Express,” is available on the Scholastic Web site.

His admission to art school was something of a fluke. On Van Allsburg’s official Web site, the artist explains what happened at a general interview for the University of Michigan: “Unfortunately, my transcript showed that I had not taken any art in the last four years. The admissions man pointed that out and said I was not qualified to enter the art school.” But 17-year-old Van Allsburg was determined. He told the admissions counselor that his “skills were so advanced” that he’d been taking private art lessons on Saturdays for years “rather than take high school classes.”

Despite being unprepared for the rigors of art school, Van Allsburg’s childhood love of art stemmed from legitimate talent. He studied sculpture at art school, and eventually set up a studio in Providence, R.I. He showed his work in New York and throughout New England.

Returning to Drawing

Meanwhile, Van Allsburg pursued his childhood love of drawing. His wife, an elementary school art teacher, encouraged him to write a children’s book. Van Allsburg talks about how he first got into children’s book illustration in an interview with Reading Rockets.

He explains, “I had done … drawings because in the winter, my sculpture studio, which was a couple of miles from my house, got so cold that I couldn't work in it at night … And I told my dealer that that's what I was doing on cold, frosty nights.”

His art dealer sent the pictures directly to the curator of the Whitney Museum, who fell in love with Van Allsburg’s style. Eventually, Van Allsburg was invited to illustrate a children’s book. His new career began in 1979, with the publication of “The Garden of Abdul Gasazi.”

Making Movies and Telling Great Stories

To date, Van Allsburg has worked on 20 children’s books. His process for writing has evolved since he first started. In an interview with, Van Allsburg explains how the themes of his narratives emerge, how he gets new ideas and where those odd titles come from.

Van Allsburg has had three books turned into movies: “The Polar Express,” “Jumanji” and “Zathura.” In a discussion with Box Office Mojo, Van Allsburg talks about some of his favorite children’s books, movies and cinematic moments. He finishes the interview by discussing what makes a great story: “All the books are journeys in a way. The character must undergo some experience that alters them.”

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