author spotlight, illustration

Author Spotlight – Chris Van Allsburg

Jumanji and The Polar Express made Chris Van Allsburg a well-known figure in children’s literature, but his career consists of many more books. Born in 1949 to a Dutch family in Boston, Chris started making art when he was a child. While attending the College of Architecture and Design at the University of Michigan, he majored in sculpture. Chris obtained a master’s degree in the field at the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design but struggled with making art and paying bills. A series of sketches he made on the side caught his wife’s eye, and she suggested that Chris use them in a children’s book. The result was The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, not his best work but a stepping stone. As of 2022, Chris has written and/or illustrated 22 books. His art was also used for the covers of a 1994 edition of The Chronicles of Narnia. I hope you find a new read here or explore his bibliography and pick up something new.

The Garden of Abdul Gasazi (Clarion Books)
Written & Illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg

For ages: 4-8
This is a children’s book that evokes an uneasy atmosphere. I always noted something creepy about Van Allsburg’s designs as a child. As someone who has always loved horror, I liked it. There’s always a sense of sinister mystery in the author’s work, especially evoked through his illustration style. Van Allsburg hadn’t quite figured out how to write a compelling narrative yet, so this is more of a visual showcase. However, I still think it has value and could easily be used for students to compose their narratives. The pictures are incredibly evocative, and I think it would be a lot of fun to see what students come up with, especially in an after-school writing club scenario where you have kids passionate about creative writing.

The Stranger (Clarion Books)
Written & Illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg

For ages: 4-8
This may be my personal favorite of Van Allsburg’s works. It is a mystery with a solution, but students will be challenged to explain what is happening. Farmer Bailey accidentally hits a mysterious leather-clad man while driving home in the late summer. The Stranger doesn’t speak and seems confused by everything. However, he does help out around the farm as the Farmer’s children observe him. Eventually, an encounter with a leaf suddenly awakens The Stranger’s memories. He realizes the world isn’t moving on because he has abandoned his post. This is a fantastic book to ring in autumn and present students with a puzzle where all the evidence is on the page.

Zathura (Houghton Mifflin)
Written & Illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg

For ages: 4-8
You’ve heard of Jumanji, but fewer have heard of its spiritual successor, Zathura. Walter and Danny are brothers who are always fighting. One day in the park, they find a copy of a board game titled Zathura. Back home, they play and find that its outer space theme is not just decoration. The siblings deal with a meteor show, a drastic change in gravity, a killer robot, and an alien invasion, all while within the confines of their home, which ends up floating through the stars. The brothers learn to rely on each other to get out of these situations, and by the end, they have salvaged their friendship. Zathura isn’t as good as Jumanji, but it is a fun read with kids and holds a lot of surprises.

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