By Rob Howe
January 22, 1996 12:00 PM

OUT OF THE MOUTHS OF BABES—Chris Van Allsburg’s most faithful fans—comes high praise indeed. “I am so glad your books are so weird because I am very weird,” wrote one pint-size devotee of Van Allsburg’s 1981 picture book Jumanji, which has been transformed into the blockbuster movie starring Robin Williams. In fact, no one gets much weirder than Van Allsburg: In Jumanji a lion materializes atop a piano, and a volcano spews lava on a living room floor. His ideas emerge “not from pictures I draw but from pictures I see [in my mind’s eye],” the 46-year-old author explains. “A picture with staying power is one that unlocks a door to others and becomes a logical story.”

Despite a vivid, off-center imagination that has helped earn him two prestigious Caldecott Medals for best illustration of children’s books, Van Allsburg himself is anything but a wild and crazy guy. Given to bow ties and horn-rimmed specs, he is a soft-spoken family man who sticks close to the handsome Providence home that he has restored and decorated in the British Arts and Crafts style of the 19th century. His idea of a good time is scuffing through the snow with his wife, Lisa, 45, and their two daughters, Anna, 9 months, and Sophia, 4, whose scribblings in coloring books inspired Van Allsburg’s latest release, Bad Day at Riverbend.

During working hours—he keeps a buttoned-down 9 to 6 schedule—Van Allsburg can be found in his top-floor studio, bent over the drafting table that his mother salvaged from a flea market years ago and dreaming up cerebral tales told largely through illustrations that depict a mysterious world cloaked in an eerie half-light. All of which may explain Van Allsburg’s slight discomfort with the rip-roaring Hollywood version of Jumanji. The tale was first told in 14 moody, black- and-white drawings of a brother and sister who become lost in a curious board game—one in which the line between reality and fantasy is blurred but never wholly erased. Van Allsburg says his vision of the movie was not a roller-coaster ride of special effects but rather “a quirky kind of mystery where we understand that we are in the real world, but where, every once in a while, crazy things happen.”

The film also has taken lumps from some critics who warn parents to keep small children at home, safe from scary images of carnivorous jungle vines and stampeding beasts. But Van Allsburg isn’t much concerned with such criticism, given that he too has been scolded for his vaguely disturbing drawings. “When kids see something like rhinos charging through the wall of a library, I don’t think they go home and wonder if that could happen to them,” he says. “I think they might be scared, but it’s a response that lasts only as long as the action is on the screen.” Speaking for Van Allsburg and himself, fellow illustrator Maurice Sendak once said, “We all know generally what is inappropriate for children, and serious, ethical artists working hard to convey ideas are not going to cross that line.”

Van Allsburg’s youthful resolve to study law evaporated almost the moment he entered the University of Michigan. (It was there that the east Grand Rapids-born son of a dairy owner fell in love with Lisa Morrison while teaching her how to use a woodworking saw in an art class.) He quickly switched to sculpture and later received his master’s degree from the Rhode Island School of Design. His initial drawings, intended solely for relaxation in 1979, became the basis of his first book, The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, a charcoal-drawn tale of a magician. From the beginning, Lisa, then an elementary school art teacher, was enchanted by his drawings. “They were somber, but at the same time there was humor,” she says. “And he drew so beautifully—so Dutch, so realistic—that I felt he should consider children’s books.”

Of his 14 books, none is more beloved than The Polar Express, the story of a boy who boards a fog-veiled train bound for the North Pole, where Santa gives him a sleigh bell. More than 2.5 million copies have been sold since the book’s publication in 1985. It is even available in animated form on CD-ROM, though Van Allsburg has mixed feelings about that medium. “To see the pictures move is very odd,” he says. “It’s a little like seeing the Mona Lisa turn her head and wink.”

All this success hasn’t overwhelmed the author. “Fame means nothing to him, other than he’s appreciative that people like his work,” says his wife. He’s even largely unimpressed by the hype over the film (though he was paid $500,000 for all rights to his story idea) and even the release of a Jumanji board game. For that matter, he never liked board games much anyway. “Even with three hotels on Park Place,” he once said, “I never felt truly rich, and not being able to interrogate Clue’s Colonel Mustard personally was always a letdown.”


NANCY DAY in Providence