Monday, December 7, 2009

When you see the terrier, drink! Let's Read Six by Van Allsburg!

I made some art! I went for weeks without making art and it felt weird! Now I feel better! More (and the bigger version of this painting) at Flickr.
641. Halcyon Snow
OK, last week the "long stuff on the usual days, quickies on the other days" pattern didn't work out so well. So I'm going back to my good old M/W/F schedule.
For today, it's the Picture Book Analysis project I mentioned way back in October. I saved it until now because now it is December. Which means it's almost Christmas. Which means it's almost time to read The Polar Express with a cup of cocoa.

Originally "published" 3/24/05.

Written and Illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg
For the Picture Book Analysis Project, I have chosen to review the works of author/illustrator Chris Van Allsburg. I will be considering the six books in chronological order. In this way, I will be able to review Van Allsburg's growth as a writer and artist.
Amazingly, Jumangi is only the second book Chris Van Allsburg wrote and illustrated. Already he shows an incredible eye for detail and atmosphere in his illustrations, rendered in black and white conté (a charcoal derivative). The lack of color creates an ominous, dreamlike mood. The illustrations are on single pages, facing blocks of text. This gives the story an even pace even as the tension mounts in the written text. The use of borders around the illustrations enhances the dreamlike effect, as if we're peering through windows into another world.
Van Allsburg's writing is often accused of being boring compared to his illustrations, which is a rather unfair comparison. In Jumangi, the text is mainly used to enhance the story told in the illustrations. Van Allsburg uses it to further the plotline, describing characters and events that aren't shown in the pictures.
This has turned out to be an important thread working throughout Van Allsburg's books. His illustrations are very detailed, but his books still rely strongly on the reader's ability to use her imagination. For this reason, and the fact that his stories tend to be subversively frightening at times, his books are better for students aged seven and above. Jumangi works well as a read-aloud and as an independent reader. As a read-aloud, children are compelled by the exciting story. As an independent reader, they have a chance to study Van Allsburg's meticulous artwork firsthand.

The Mysteries of Harris Burdick
Written and Illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg
The Mysteries of Harris Burdick is my single favorite Chris Van Allsburg book, and that's saying a lot.
There is no story. Just a collection of fourteen stunning Van Allsburg illustrations, each accompanied by a title and a short line of text. It's as if the artist has chosen to boil down his storytelling skill to its very essence. Van Allsburg's writing is often accused of being rather dull and redundant when compared to his evocative artwork. He usually uses text only to further the plot along and describe elements of the story that aren't contained in the illustrations.
In Mysteries, aside from a brief introduction crediting the drawings to a mystery artist, there are less than two hundred words of body text. Therefore, almost all the storytelling is done within the illustrations. In the mere three years between Jumangi and Mysteries, the increases in Van Allsburg's skill with conté and his confidence in his gift are nothing short of extraordinary. The black and white illustrations show incredible depth and detail, and the imagination they show is breathtaking.
Once again, this is a book that trusts the reader's ability to use her imagination. However, reading Mysteries is clearly a solo experience. It is perhaps best appreciated as an independent reader for older students. They have a chance to study the illustrations, but they also have an opportunity to expand on the stories within the drawings. While the artwork can be enjoyed on its own merits, any one of the pictures can be taken as a wonderful starting place for a creative writing project.

The Polar Express
Written and Illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg
Here is Chris Van Allsburg's signature book. Within a decade of its publication, The Polar Express had already established itself as a holiday classic. Not surprisingly, I know many fans (myself included) who read this book on an annual basis: on Christmas Eve, accompanied by a mug of hot cocoa.
Polar Express is one of Van Allsburg's few works featuring color. He has switched from his favorite medium of conté crayon to chalk pastels. Once again, his confidence in his abilities as an artist is increasing. The absence of color in his earlier works gave the books a mysterious, dreamlike quality. The addition of the element of color creates more realism. The first and final illustrations in the book are nearly photorealistic, while the remaining illustrations, with their fantastic settings and characters, are made more surreal. Perhaps Van Allsburg made the artistic decision to use color in order to increase the believability of Santa's workshop. (Of course, there's still the artist's trademark ominous air. The North Pole could be mistaken for an industrial park, were it not for the elves and cheerful twinkling lights, and Santa Claus would be hardly recognizable without his distinctive red suit.)
Furthermore, the formatting in Polar Express is highly unusual for a Van Allsburg book. I like to think of the illustrations as "letterboxed"; they're bordered double-page spreads with a bit of room set aside on either the far left or far right for a few paragraphs of text. Once again, Van Allsburg makes it very clear that the illustrations are, so to speak, the stars of the book. The text is simply a supporting player.
The Polar Express is very moving for older readers, reading independently. It is also a compelling read-aloud for much younger children, and is perfectly fine for first graders.
Just make sure you get to them before somebody decides to subject them to the movie.

The Widow's Broom
Written and Illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg
This is an unusual work from Chris Van Allsburg. In the three books I have studied so far, the text supports his illustrations. The illustrations are clearly the stars of the books. However, in The Widow's Broom, the text is on equal footing with the visual elements of the book. Broom was published in 1992, almost a full decade since Jumangi. In that time, we've seen Van Allsburg's skill as a visual storyteller increase dramatically. But now, we finally see an increase in his confidence as a literal storyteller.
The illustrations in Broom are, naturally, still fantastic. Once again, they are conté crayon, black and white, and highly atmospheric. Most of the illustrations are single-page pieces facing the text, but there are a few double-page spreads. These explain parts of the story that wouldn't come across as easily in the text, and as we've seen in most Van Allsburg books, quite the opposite is usually true.
I described The Polar Express illustrations as bringing to mind a letterboxed (wide-screen) movie. This time, the format is noticeably tall instead of long, which is very unique (the visual cortex is wired for horizontal compositions; this is why you almost never see films -or books- formatted in "tall-screen"). This layout serves the text more readily than the illustrations, emphasizing the fact that the text is the star this time out.
The Widow's Broom is a touching tale about the cruelty of intolerance. With that said, it's best used as a read-aloud for second-grade and above, and would be a fine book to discuss afterward.

The Sweetest Fig
Written and Illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg
Published one year after The Widow's Broom, The Sweetest Fig is sort of a return to form for Chris Van Allsburg. Once again, the text is less prominent than the illustrations. The storyline is amusing, but not as memorable as the four books I've analyzed so far. To be honest, it's one of his weaker efforts.
But even a comparatively boring Van Allsburg has more interesting things going on in any given illustration than some novels have in their entire length.
The Sweetest Fig is only the second book in this study where Van Allsburg has used color. It appears that the drawings are rendered in chalk pastels, as in The Polar Express. Color is used in a very different way this time. In Polar Express, the colors were very vivid, but in this book they are subdued. In fact, most of the illustrations barely appear to have any color in them at all, except for one or two elements such as the titular figs, and they immediately command attention as a result.
The formatting is also similar to that of The Polar Express. They're bordered double-page spreads with a bit of room set aside for a paragraph or two of text. This time, the text only has a tiny white square set aside for it.
The Sweetest Fig is not one of Chris Van Allsburg's masterpieces, but it could be a fun read-aloud for younger children. They will especially enjoy the magical justice served to the nasty main character by his long-suffering dog.

Bad Day at Riverbend
Written and Illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg
This one is another personal favorite of mine. With that said, I have a hard time ruining the surprise ending, as it is one of my favorite aspects of the book. I will try to make this a spoiler-free analysis.
Bad Day At Riverbend is at once obviously unlike anything Chris Van Allsburg has ever done before. It's almost unrecognizable as one of his works. In this book, for reasons that are integral to the plot, he has switched from his favorite medium of conté and pastels to pen, ink, and wax crayon. The illustrations are stark, simple outlines. He returns to his usual drawing style only in the final pages of the book.
The formatting in Riverbend is also unlike any other Van Allsburg book, because the text finally gets to share visual space with the illustrations, without being blocked in by borders or stuck on a facing page. The illustrations are all double-page spreads, and there are no borders at all until the very last page.
Just how distinct is this from any other Van Allsburg book? Well, this is the only book in this entire report where I wasn't able to find the trademark bull terrier he always seems to be able to sneak in.
I have a hard time imagining this kind of book working as a read-aloud, and I don’t know if very young children would understand the ending. Because of its high-concept story, Bad Day at Riverbend is probably best enjoyed by older children reading by themselves (the closest relative this book has is clearly David Wiesner's The Three Pigs). The reality of the "bad day", and its revelation, is ingenious.

I'll be talking about Christmas movies and specials in the near-future. Until then, why not enjoy the best turkeys of the past decade, care of The Onion AV Club?

I haven't yet seen "The Happening" or "The Wicker Man", and I don't know if I could bring myself to sit through "Battlefield Earth", but I have seen "D Wars" and it is as awesomely insane as it sounds. So OK, ratbrains, which of these movies do you secretly like?