Chris Van Allsburg, a Rare Bird Among Illustrators, Brings His Art to a Fresh Christmas Treasure

updated 12/11/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/11/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

Once upon a time, Chris Van Alls-burg's abilities as an illustrator caused him nothing but grief. It was 1959, and 10-year-old Chris had grown accustomed to winning peer approval. "For my cartoon characters," he explains, "I could draw a decent Pluto. But in fifth grade having artistic talent became sort of nerdy, like having cooties. You were lumped in with the kids who brought violins to school."

That time is long past. Since 1979 Van Allsburg, 40, has written and illustrated nine books, all brisk sellers and two—Jumanji and the perennial Christmas bestseller The Polar Express—that are winners of the prestigious Caldecott Medal. In the spring of 1988, when author Mark (Winter's Tale) Helprin needed artwork for his retelling of the Swan Lake story, he made only one call—to Van Allsburg, "because," says Helprin, "he's the very best" Their collaboration, for which Houghton Mifflin paid a record-breaking $801,000 (Van Allsburg got about half of this), reached stores last month and is now climbing the New York Timesbest-seller list It will be under the Christmas trees of many a fifth grader this year—and if Van Allsburg's track record is any indication, few of them will say that it's nerdy.

Neither will their parents. "It seems to me that not only the writing in most children's books condescends to kids, but so does the art," Van Allsburg says. "I don't want to do that" Instead he writes magical, ambiguous tales that raise questions without obvious answers. Does the dog in The Garden of Abdul Gasazi actually turn into a duck, or has a boy been fooled by a magician? "My stories are often a little mysterious," Van Allsburg says. "I think it's difficult to forget things that are unresolved."

His somber, dreamlike illustrations heighten the mystery, which Van Allsburg enhances with his unexpected perspectives and by rarely depicting faces head-on. "If I never show the face, readers are more obliged to project what they feel about the character," he says.

It is an approach that pleases adults as well as children. "Before Chris, most children's picture books were like sitting in a theater looking at the action," says Peter Glassman, co-owner of the Books of Wonder children's bookstore in Manhattan. "He said, 'Let's take a look from the balcony or from the floor.' He gave a whole new breadth and depth to picture books. A hundred years from now, there's no doubt he'll be referred to as one of our greatest illustrators."

If so, it won't be because he planned it Growing up in Grand Rapids, Mich., Van Allsburg, the son of a dairy owner, preferred model airplanes to picture books. He did like drawing, but at the University of Michigan, where he majored in art ("because I couldn't think of anything else to do"), he studied sculpture rather than painting. "It was the same kind of pleasure I took from making model airplanes," he says. "It felt like I was getting a college degree for doing basically what I did when I was 7 or 8."

After completing his master's degree at the Rhode Island School of Design, Van Allsburg began selling his fanciful wood, bronze and resin sculptures at galleries in New York while his wife, Lisa, whom he had met at Michigan, taught art in Providence-area elementary schools. In his spare time, just for fun, he dashed off charcoal drawings. "They were odd little sketches—I don't know where they came from," he says. But a canny friend, author and illustrator David (The Way Things Work) Macaulay, thought he knew where they should go. "He said I had a narrative style," says Van Allsburg, "and that I should think about getting them published."

And so he did. His first book, The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, about a little boy's adventures in a vaguely sinister topiary garden, met with enthusiastic reviews and cries for more. Van Allsburg had no trouble delivering. Ideas for stories simply pop into his head unbidden. "With Polar Express, I had a vision of a train standing still in a forest," he says. "Steam was coming off the train. It was cold. I don't know why that vision came, but once it did I began asking myself questions about it, and the story revealed itself."

The creative process for Swan Lake was a bit different. After reading Helprin's text, Van Allsburg drew up a list of his favorite images from the story about doomed lovers who are transformed into swans. Artist and author, it turned out, saw almost exactly eye to eye. It was Van Allsburg's first collaborative experience, and he is pleased with the outcome. "When I found out Mark Helprin would be writing it," he says, "I knew the book would be something special."

Van Allsburg devotes five months of each year to writing and illustrating—working regular hours in the quiet, sunny studio at the top of his Providence, R.I., home. "I don't wake up at 3 in the morning with something I can't put aside," he says. "My muse doesn't scream that loud." The remaining months belong to his sculpture and fine-art illustrations—which fetch five-figure prices in New York—and to the courses he teaches at RISD. His classes are as unorthodox as his art: In Advanced Illustration, for example, his students must design their own country, complete with stamps, currency and a flag. "The crudest thing I've done as a teacher," says Van Allsburg, with a laugh, "was to require students to write a national anthem for their country and sing it themselves."

Still, his students say they love how his mind works, and it's obvious his readers do too. Van Allsburg receives frequent calls from smitten children, most of them wanting to know how he gets such great ideas. It's a question that occurs to grown-ups as well. Van Allsburg has no children of his own—though he and Lisa haven't dismissed the possibility—and he insists that kids aren't on his mind when he dreams up his books. "It's a cliché to say that artists are more in touch with the children in themselves, but I do have vivid memories of my childhood," he says. "When I set out to tell a story, I'm just trying to interest myself."

—Kim Hubbard, Dirk Mathison in Providence

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