Judith Saltman, editor

Surrealism and Dream: Chris Van Allsburg's Picturebooks

Joanne Canow

Joanne Canow has completed her degree from the MLIS Program at the School of Library and Information Science, University of British Columbia MA (Communications), Simon Fraser University

Chris Van Allsburg is a multiple-award winning author and illustrator. He teaches at his alma mater, the Rhode Island School of Design. A New York gallery represents his artwork. He has an extensive knowledge of art history, excellent sculptural and drawing skills, and a wonderful ability to tell stories through words and pictures.

Van Allsburg's style is derived from his training and deeply rooted in art history. Although he would call his technique representational or figurative, his strongly sculptural images have a surreal edge. His use of extreme perspective and chiaroscuro (the use of light and shadow to convey three dimensions), combined with bizarre plots and odd images, lend a mystique to his modern fantasies. He refers to his work as being, "...Surrealist. Something puzzling that happens in the context of ... a recognizable reality." [1]

For Van Allsburg, surrealism is a conscious reference to an historical avant-garde movement. His stylistic referencing places him in the historical context of Western European art history. Although no theoretical or political continuity connect the Surrealist Movement of the early part of the Twentieth Century to its last decades, a self-conscious use of historical artistic styles is common post-modern aesthetic practice. Some artists align themselves to surrealism because of its psychological orientation (quite separate from its original political stance). The Surrealist Manifesto, written by Andre Breton, in 1924, emphasized the ideas of Freud, whose ideas gave artists a host of new images. The surrealists used dream imagery to create unreal scenes in which objects, and people were depicted in odd relationships. Van Allsburg uses surreal dreams and dream-like images as a way of engaging and triggering the reader's imagination. His stories are interwoven with the "What if?" question. Readers question their interpretations of his tales. Van Allsburg says of illustrating books, "To me, the artist's role is as a magician who can make strange things happen." [2]

Van Allsburg's drawing techniques enhance the mystery and magic of his narratives. His characters and objects are clearly drawn and are either bathed in bright light or buried in extreme shadow. The use of extreme perspective gives his pictures a sense of danger, of ominous foreshadowing. There is real suspense in his picture books in which objects and people are quite ordinary but their juxtaposition is bizarre. This surreal arrangement of characters and objects heightens the conscious mystery of his illustrations.

Two books demonstrate Van Allsburg's use of dream and surrealism. Jumanji (1981) is renowned for its detailed images drawn with black conte crayon. Just a Dream (1990) uses similar devices but is drawn with conte and coloured oil pastels. Even when his conte is limited to black, his drawings imply a rich use of colour.

Jumanji narrates the story of a brother and sister who find a board game. Within moments of moving the first game piece, their home is filled with jungle animals. Lions chase them, rhinoceros stampede through the living room, and monkeys rummage for food in the kitchen. Every move of the game triggers a new scene of wild beasts rampaging through their home.

The children are the focus of the images and are viewed from extreme perspectives. In one of the first images of the book, the reader looks up into Peter's looming face, from the extreme bottom and foreground of the image. Judy is in the background of the image at the same eye level as the reader. Objects separate them. Light from the upper left hand front corner of the image illuminates their faces. Peter's hair is carefully articulated, as are the details of Judy's pigtails, blouse, and face. By contrast, Peter's hands are casually sketched and his torso and legs disappear into the deep shadows of the armchair he sits in. This chair is beautifully rendered - it looks sculptural, softly upholstered, and is very inviting. A train set is under the chair. It is massive (because of the perspective) but disappears into deep shadow and reappears, bathed in light, in the background.

In another image, the reader views the image from the bottom of the picture frame, looking up at two huge monkeys sitting on the kitchen table devouring bananas. From this extreme vantage point the entire room is displayed; cupboards are open, contents are askew, and monkey tails hang from the cupboards. Illuminating light from the rear right hand side of the image makes the background appear flat. Van Allsburg draws our attention to Judy who is looking in through the kitchen door. She is small, bathed in light, and drawn with great detail. Her face shows shock. In contrast, the foreground monkeys are in shadow but their hair, limbs, and fingernails are drawn with meticulous detail. They are frighteningly large and their expressions are menacing.

The last image displays Judy and Peter's view from an upstairs window, after surviving the game. They look straight down into the park at two friends running off with the game. The extreme angle suggests that the Jumanji experience is about to begin again, with different players.

Just a Dream is a cautionary tale of Walter, a shameless litterbug. He envisions the future as an exciting sci-fi world and is quite shocked when his dream comes true. The images in Just a Dream change Walter forever.

Walter wakes up in his bed, to find it perched at the top of a refuse dump that disappears far into the distant horizon line. Even houses are buried in garbage. The bed is at the foreground of the image and the reader is looking up at the headboard to the back of Walter's head. Light shines down from the upper left hand corner, across the back of his head, his cat, and the scene in front of him. There are few details in the background, just mounds of debris bathed in early morning light. In the foreground, in deep shadow, are piles of toilets, toasters, garbage bags, and debris. These objects, in front of Walter's bed, are very realistically drawn. A man driving a tractor appears to be rising out of a valley of garbage into the foreground where Walter's bed is perched. Afraid he will be ploughed under, Walter yells for the driver to stop. Walter wakes up.

A little boy sitting in a bed in a garbage dump is not an ordinary image. The juxtaposition of the imagery and use of light and perspective suggest a nightmare. Van Allsburg's illustrations take the reader into a deep world of symbolic imagery. He encourages the reader to explore a world of illusion and fantasy that develops a deeper understanding of self in relation to the world, a fundamental role of art.

Van Allsburg's sequences of images and text move the reader along rapidly, while each individual illustration seems frozen in time. His drawings display a massive sculptural quality similar to that found in Edward Hopper's images. His extreme chiaroscuro and perspective lines recall Giorgio de Chirico's surrealist images. Van Allsburg turns the commonplace into monumental three-dimensional modelled forms using depth, space, and chiaroscuro. His manipulation of perspective brings objects close to the picture plane or recedes them deep into the background. These devices bring the reader right into the images.

Exploring the relationship between fantasy and reality, the visual images communicate with the reader on a symbolic level. Van Allsburg imparts layers of context and meaning to give depth to his stories, to create a visceral power that engages the reader in reflective wonder. Van Allsburg's surrealistic narratives and images create complex worlds for his readers. In Van Allsburg's picture books, dreaming is magic and magic is believing.



1. Susan Huetteman, "Chris Van Allsburg - 1949," http://www.ncteamericancollection.org/litmap/van_allsburg_chris_ri.htm Internet. (05 March 2003).

2. "Chris Van Allsburg," 1997, http://theliterarylink.com/allsburg.html Internet. (05 March 2003).


Selected Sources

"Chris Van Allsburg," 1997, http://theliterarylink.com/allsburg.html Internet. (05 March 2003).

Huetteman, Susan. "Chris Van Allsburg -- 1949." http://www.ncteamericancollection.org/litmap/van_allsburg_chris_ri.htm Internet. (05 March 2003).

Hurst, Carol Otis. "Jumanji." Carol Hurst's Children's Literature Site. 1999. http://www.carolhurst.com/titles/jumanji.html Internet. (05 March 2003).

Montana, L. "The Expanding Market for Children's Book Illustrations," American Artist. December 1990. http://www.gti.net/iksog/eloise/library/9012_americanartist.htm Internet. (28 November 2001, link invalid at publishing time).

Nell, Phil. "Just a Dream?: Chris Van Allsburg and Surrealism at the End of the Twentieth Century." The College of Charleston. http://www.english.ilstu.edu/border/nel.html Internet. (05 March 2003).

Stanton, Joseph. "The Important Books: Appreciating the Children's Picture Book as a Form of Art." American Art. Vol. 12, No. 2. Summer 1998. http://nmaa-ryder.si.edu/journal/v12n2/stanton.html Internet. (05 March 2003).

Van Allsburg, Chris. Jumanji. Illustrated by the author. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1981.

Van Allsburg, Chris. Just a Dream. Illustrated by the author. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1990.

Waldberg, Patrick. Surrealism. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd., 1965.

"Surrealism and Dream: Chris Van Allsburg's Picturebooks" © Joanne Canow, 2003.


Volume 7, Issue 3 The Looking Glass, September, 2003

Site design and content, except where noted, © The Looking Glass 2003.
"Surrealism and Dream: Chris Van Allsburg's Picturebooks" © Joanne Canow, 2003.
Send general correspondence regarding The Looking Glass c/o The Editor


The Looking Glass: new perspectives on children's literature

ISBN 1551-5680