Wherever author Chris Van Allsburg’s name appears in a review, there’s a good chance the word “dark” will be attached to his picture books, but Van Allsburg isn’t so sure his work is very dark at all.
“When I contemplate how dark my imagination can be and what I end up putting in books, this is bright, high-noon sunshine that I’m making,” Van Allsburg said. “There’s a little jeopardy in many of the books and a lot of them have to do with losing things or getting lost and having to find your way back, or something along those lines. Sometimes the stories aren’t clearly resolved. They may strike people as dark because they are comparing them to the bright, bright sunlight that’s typical for most children’s stories.”
Van Allsburg will appear at the Eric Carle Museum in Amherst on Sunday, Nov. 10, for a sold-out talk and a book signing at 2 p.m.
Van Allsburg sees that his picture books can elicit tension and uncertainty, but points out those run counter to a huge portion of the children’s book market and the purpose of it.
“It’s a fact that there are books that are created to comfort children, that the parents can read with children that will help children get through a difficult time,” Van Allsburg said. “The most obvious difficult time is trying to get to sleep, and there’s a whole genre of books that are meant to make them calm, feel secure, so they can go to sleep. When I contemplate that, I don’t think I’m capable of writing a book like that. I may be, but my impulse is to do something that keeps a child awake, rather than puts a child to sleep.”
Uncertainty is an unusual thing to address in picture books for a number of reasons, but the most obvious is that it’s such a subtle state to be in — and expressing that psychological space without making it terrifying requires a certain mastery of the form. Van Allsburg has long proven himself capable of such subtlety and it’s clear that books like “Jumanji,” “The Stranger,” “The Wretched Stone” and others offer a chance for contemplation and concentration of the book being read in a literary and visual sophistication that Van Allsburg has managed to create his very own niche in the world of children’s picture books.
“That might simply be the result of telling stories that have as a goal not simply pacifying a child, but stimulating them, and, at the same time, providing images that encourage lingering for a little bit to simply record them,” he said. “I have this idea that a drawing should contain all the information it does. The result is going to be a lot of kids will be ready to absorb it, they’ll want to look at it, either once they’ve decoded the part of the picture that has to do with the text, they may linger and look at the picture a little bit longer to figure out why it looks like it does.”
From his very first book, “The Garden of Abdul Gasazi,” Van Allsburg appeared fully formed in his work, and he credits this to a total, and possibly naive, disregard for what was required of him to create a children’s book at all.
“The path I took to becoming a storyteller and picture maker was somewhat different than most people who actually familiarize themselves with the field, the traditions, the classics, the techniques,” Van Allsburg said. “They probably read quite a few books while they’re developing their own voice and their own style. But I didn’t get involved in children’s books because of a passionate interest in them. It was, for me, a lark, and the result of that was that I wasn’t particularly well-educated in children’s books. So I had the most basic, rudimentary understanding of what a picture book would be, and that would be a very, very short story that was accompanied by 13 or 14 pictures and that’s what constituted a book. I didn’t have any clear idea of what kind of subject matter should be dealt with, what the pictures should look like. I didn’t look at a lot of picture books.”
He had seen picture books, certainly, and as he was being encouraged by his wife to create his own, she had brought some home for him to look at. He glanced at the examples, but continued on his own path.
“If I had looked at a lot of those, maybe more than I did, and actually tried to do an analysis, that suggested to me if these are things being published, then I had to adhere to a kind of a model and that model would not have included fairly detailed rendering in charcoal pencil,” said Van Allsburg. “I didn’t see anything much like that when I started out, and if I had been more comprehensive in my study and analysis of picture books, I probably would’ve just thrown up my hands and said, ‘Well, nothing that I’m capable of doing is likely to find either a publisher or an audience just based on what I see in print.’ Because I didn’t do a really big analysis and because I wasn’t driven forward by this profound ambition to be a published picture book artist, I just went ahead and did what I knew how to do, which was draw in charcoal, and actually only discovered in writing the first story the kind of story I might be inclined to tell, which was a story that didn’t have a clear resolution.”
As writing influences, Van Allsburg has said Mad Magazine and “The Twilight Zone” offer some guiding principles in his writing, but his imagination has continued to flow over the last nearly 25 years, leading to 18 picture books total and films like “Jumanji” and “The Polar Express.” The groundwork was all there in “The Garden of Abdul Gasazi.”
“That book dealt with, I discovered after I finished, a comparison of stage magic to genuine magic,” Van Allsburg said. “It’s one thing to sit down and say, ‘Well that’s an interesting theme, I wonder if I can sit down and write a story to address it,’ but that was not the case, I was just simple writing a story of three figures, a boy, a dog, and a magician, that’s simply where I ended up, but subsequent to doing that, the other stories are in that same sort of vein of questioning things, presenting fantasies that might provoke the imagination but not finally provide all the answers you need.”
Van Allsburg’s ultimate mystery story, “The Mysteries of Harris Burdick” was experimental in its a format, a collection of cryptic pages from the work of the non-existent Burdick, which left it to the reader to make up his or her own mind about what the pages meant. Over the years, the book has fueled the imaginations of children in ways no other picture book ever has before.
“I’d gotten thousands of stories from kids in classrooms,” said Van Allsburg. “Teachers use the book to do creative writing, and then they send the results to me, so over the last 20 years or so, I’ve read many, many, many Burdick stories. They end up getting a little tiny bit of Burdick DNA, which they then have to combine with their own.”
That book ended up with an adaptation different from the films Van Allsburg has seen made of his books — a short story anthology called “The Chronicles of Harris Burdick,” bringing together writers like Stephen King, Cory Doctorow, Jules Feiffer, Lemony Snicket and Van Allsburg himself, writing their own interpretations of what Burdick’s original pages alluded to.
“It’s not surprising that the range and tone of the work varied so greatly, because it was 14 other people,” Van Allsburg said. “I guess my general impression of it was that the stories were actually pretty good, which meant that the idea that I had of getting Burdick’s pictures and captions in other people’s hands would trigger their imagination in a particular way.”
Van Allsburg continues to explore the complicated areas of childhood with the book he is currently working on, this time casting a child in the role of authority — perhaps even antagonist — in order to create even more conflict and uncertainty. This time, the story centers on a hamster who is left in his cage in the pet store because he is so ill-tempered.
“He’s the last one there and is chosen by a little girl who takes him home and it’s downhill from there,” he said. “The interesting thing about it is that it has as its protagonist a small animal, and that’s almost uniformly in children’s books a proxy for the child reader.
“The child will identify will the small, vulnerable animal, because that’s them, but the antagonists in the story are children.
“Ordinarily when you see yourself represented or someone who’s your age or maybe your gender, you identify with them, but when there’s a tiny animal there, you wonder, who am I? Am I the kid or am I the little animal?”
Originally published on November 8, 2013 in the North Adams Transcript.
What follows is a segment of the interview that didn’t make that article, but I thought would be of interest — I talk to Chris about how sculpture affects his work and, also, he gives me a pretty lengthy account of at least some of his adventures in Hollywood!
J7: Do you think your sculpting background affects your illustration? It seems to me it does. You have an eye for architecture, an eye for the space around the figures in your work as part of the whole picture just as someone might do looking at a sculpture and also considering how a sculpture functions in a space.
CVA: Well, I’ve been asked to reflect on that and I don’t see much overlap between what I did as a sculptor and what I do as an illustrator. One connection I do see is that, as a sculptor I drew things that didn’t exist. They were things I intended to make, and so I had used my imagination to try to figure out how light would fall on something, and, as I sketched it, the ability to give it mass and reality, even though it didn’t exist, so I see being able to transfer some of those skills to illustration, but with respect to the actual composition and the use of tonalities and things like that, I don’t see that I brought anything from sculpture to that effort. I know that from the very beginning, I sensed when I was working on my first story that the fantastical would be well served by the scrupulous and rational drawing that I was inclined to do, that it would be a beneficial combination. If you’re going to write something fantastic, the pictures that you produce to tell that story should try to de-emphasize how fantastic it is and use a style which is quite rational, which is quite reasonable, that says, oh yes, it may sound fantastic but this is what it looks like and, see, it’s really quite plausible. This could happen. So the rational, illustrious combined with a slightly flightier or fantastic story ideas, I think maybe very early I sensed that those things could compliment each other.
J7: You were early on in the Hollywood activity of adapting picture books — Jumanji was in 1995. Were you very involved with any of them creatively?
CVA: The first one, Jumanji, I was pretty heavily involved, because the studio optioned the property and then they commissioned some writers and when the option period was about to run out, they had a script from the writers that they had commissioned that they were not happy with. The way films are developed is that studios option many, many properties. I’m not sure what the ratio is, but I think it’s approximately one out of twenty optioned properties actually become film, so when you read about authors celebrating because they’ve had their book optioned, it’s a celebration which should be tempered with the knowledge that it may never happen. Maybe some sparkling cider instead of champagne for that celebration.
I was in that position. The studio had optioned the book, they commissioned a screenplay, they were unhappy with the screenplay and the option period was about to run out. They were about ready to concede that maybe there wasn’t a film story in this 32 page picture book. I talked to the producers and they said it doesn’t look good, they just don’t think it can happen, so I wrote a treatment for Jumanji, just a three or four page story, basically, that just tells a sense of the plot line, the story beats. I sent that to Sony and Sony liked it a lot and offered to purchase it, but then the producer I was working with said I ought to give it a shot, so I talked Sony into letting me do a first draft, which I did, and they liked it a lot. I think I did one rewrite, and they had a script that they were, at that point, very happy with. They didn’t exercise the option at that point, but they had extended it, and then they took it out and found a director and, even more critical to its ultimately getting green-lit, they found Robin Williams.
Then it went into another phase of development of pre-production and it started to get rewritten by others beside myself. Not at the behest of any of the cast, or the studio for that matter. It was the director who saw it as an action film more than the Twlight Zonish thing I had created. So while the story architecture was pretty much the same, it got pretty dramatically rewritten. The tonality changed quite a bit. They introduced a couple of characters, principally the white hunter who’s trying to shoot the protagonist, some characters like that. It was a great frustration for me because the standard relationship that a rights holder has with the film company to whom he sold the film rights of the book is that you’re basically a consultant. You don’t get approval on anything. You don’t script approval, cast, you don’t get any approval at all. But they call you a consultant, which means that you can write notes about screenplays and you can send them, but they don’t promise that they will read them, and, frankly, your consultant position is basically an honorary thing. It makes you feel good when you sign the contract, because as a consultant you still don’t have any influence. That was where I found myself when I had started working on the first draft I had written.
And it finally got written over so much that I didn’t even get a screen credit for it, but I still got a story credit, which means that the story that the film is based on, which is separate from the book story, and which is much more complicated and it has many more events going on, I was given a credit as the creator of the story — not simply the book story, but the film story. But I was not credited as a screenwriter, which was okay with me, because the final version of the film was kind of an action film and not the peculiar, strange thing I was hoping could be made, but I have to say finally that I wasn’t greatly disappointed. When I look at or hear the accounts of some of my colleagues who’ve gone through this process where they feel terribly abused, and if the film’s gotten made, they feel it’s a truly awful film and they’re embarrassed by it, I never felt that way. I feel pretty fortunate that it got the full attention of the studio, it got a large budget, it got a big star, and even though it turned into a film that fell roughly into the action fantasy that I was hoping it wouldn’t, within that definition it was still a pretty good film, I guess. Entertaining.
From that description, you may gather I was involved pretty heavily in that, extensively, but finally realized toward the end that it’s really a fool’s errand. You’re just asking for heartbreak to get involved in it if you aren’t actually part of the filmmaking crew, otherwise you can just feel brutalized by the process.
J7: So you were not so heavily involved in the process for Polar Express.
CVA: True. I knew how it went. I knew how the thing would play out. I went to meetings with writers, because initially when Playtone, which is Tom Hank’s production company, and Warner Brothers decided that they would go ahead and make it, they didn’t have a director, so I went out to California and talked to Playtone about who might be a good director and sat down with a few people. They were including me because I think the culture at a little place like Playtone is somewhat more welcoming than with a big studio, but I still didn’t deceive myself. I knew that they were being respectful and for all I know actually valued my input, but I knew that there was never going to be a point where if something was happening that I didn’t like, I would be able to stop it. That would not happen.
J7: In those situations, if there is something you don’t like, what to do you? Divorce yourself from it?
CVA: You write notes. You try to make your argument. But you don’t hold your breath waiting for anybody to act on it, because they simply may not agree with you, or there may be financial considerations, or there may be somebody else who believes the opposite, and so I guess in a way you sort of divorce yourself from it. You’ll always have the book. There’s nothing they can do when they make a film that will alter the book. The book’s in print, there’s thousands and thousands of copies of it out there. No matter how bad the movie is, they’re not going to change the book. I suppose going forward, and this is what I meant about some colleagues that I’ve had who felt so bad about it, I suppose you could make a film that was so bad that it would poison people’s opinion about the title forever and it would stop selling, but it’s almost always the opposite. Even when a mediocre film is made, it usually stimulates book sales.
J7: Once Zathura came out, I thought Hollywood would plow ahead with more movies based on your titles, but that was the last one. Any reason?
CVA: Paramount jumped in and they were developing for a long time, with a script that I wrote, The Widow’s Broom, and they spent an enormous amount of time and, according to them, money, doing pre-production. They did animation tests. It was going to be live action where you would have live characters interacting with a digital character, namely the Widow’s Broom. The tests were hysterical, this broom hopping around on its own was very compelling and they were pretty excited about it, and then they changed management. It’s pretty common when a studio changes management that the new group that is coming in is not so enthusiastic about things that are in pre-production or on the slate because they know if it does well they won’t get credit for having developed it, and they know if it does poorly they’ll be blamed for having given it the green light, so there’s not a great deal of enthusiasm when new studio people come in and look at the work that others have been putting together. When the management changed at Paramount, the movie lost its support and they basically turned it back to me, the book rights, of course those expired when the option periods ran out.
They also turned back the script to me. The problem is that they claim millions of dollars spent on it during the pre-production and those costs, they have to made whole before the screenplay could be taken any place else, or I should say, the screenplay was ever produced. A studio that was actually interested in doing The Widow’s Broom would have to make Paramount whole before anything else happened, and the bill’s up around 8 million bucks or something. So that project is totally burned, which is another unpleasant reality of working in Hollywood.
J7: Dealing with Hollywood seems more like a business person’s job than a creative person’s.
CVA: It is a strange business, because it’s storytelling, which is an art form, and there are all sorts of other creative efforts involved in it. When you look at anything that really matters, the director of photography is essentially an artist who uses lighting, and you’ve got a set decorator who uses color, and a costumer, they’re all basically thought of as artistic undertakings, and yet when you wrap it all together, with the director and the writer and everybody else, you’ve got this whole big bunch of artists, but they’re engaged in an activity that costs so much money that it’s instantly a business. It’s not art anymore. The fact that you’ve got a bunch of artists working on one project, artistic collaboration isn’t by nature a smooth process, and then you put high stakes into the mixture, $150 million and it’s not surprising that things get kind of chaotic and dysfunctional.