In addition to being my favorite children's book creator of all time, Chris Van Allsburg has achieved something even more notable: a modern Christmas story that I don't loathe. Recently released as a huge-budget animated film starring Tom Hanks, The Polar Express (1985) is, as all Van Allsburg's works are, a magical tale told alongside illustrations that shimmer on the page with breathtaking lucidity. After 25 years and 14 books of unfailing skill and nuance, it's easy to take what Chris Van Allsburg does for granted. But a simple reconnect with his canon as a whole makes it clear: whether it's the fantastical board game fantasy Jumanji, or the creepy flying boat tale The Wreck of the Zephyr, or even a Christmas story like Polar Express--this man is an unparalleled genius and totally deserving of his massive critical and commercial success. He's also one of the nicest people I've had the pleasure to interview.
As we're speaking you're preparing to attend the New York film premiere of Polar Express. I'm curious what your thoughts are on the process of converting a 20-30 page, largely illustrative book into a feature-length movie.
Well, I'm not intimately involved with the process. At the outset [of the Polar Express film] I had conversations with Tom Hanks, who was initially the driving force for it. It was his enthusiasm and interest in the book that started the process moving and so I had some conversations with Tom about how, once expanded, what sort of film you'd have in your hands, and was it possible to make a feature-length film that had an interesting and compelling narrative but was also faithful to the simple story of the book. He believed it was possible and so I entrusted it to him and to Robert Zemeckis (director) and Bill Broyles (screenwriter).
And Zathura, the sequel to Jumanji, is also in the works for a film, with Jon Favreau at the helm. That's interesting to me considering his body of work, which includes writing and starring in Swingers, and directing Elf.
It's interesting to me, too. I've seen the dailies from it; it's looking pretty great. It's extremely well cast--just a couple little kids, but boy they're doing a pretty great job.
"Dailies"? You seem to have the film biz lingo down.
[Laughs] Well I've gotten to know more about it, starting with Jumanji. And I've been trying to get The Widow's Broom made into a film (Allsburg's 1992 book about a living broom that can walk, do chores, and wield an axe), and that's given me more opportunity to interact with the "industry."
Reading back through your canon, I was struck by how gorgeous and accomplished even your earliest book, The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, is. Were you born with your drawing ability?
I actually didn't draw at all when I was in college, I studied sculpture. I avoided two-dimensional art because I didn't think it was my calling. I was more comfortable working with clay and wood and metal and then when I got out of school I set up a sculpture studio, and drawing I took up as a hobby. And after doing that for a year or so I got some encouragement from a couple different parties to think about these things as illustrations, and finally actually took some around to publishers, who also encouraged me. That was back when I was 29, a relatively late start actually, given that most illustrators start doing this as soon as they're out of school.
What sort of literature do you feel informs your storytelling?
As a kid I read a lot of comic books, and I was a big fan of the Twilight Zone. Rod Serling was a big hero of mine, and not just because of his kind of droll introductions to each of the TV segments, but because I knew that he wrote a lot of them, and I think he was a pretty gifted writer. I was pretty influenced by those TV experiences when I was a kid.
But in addition to the great artwork, you tell a mean story, too. Were you surprised that in addition to artistry, you had literary gifts, as well?
Maybe a little bit, but it wasn't as if one day I hadn't done it and then the next day I had. I worked at it. I guess if someone had told me at the age of 28 that I was actually going to be writing stories for kids and have a bunch of books published at some point and a couple of them turned into movies… yes at that point that would have been a surprising idea.