Archive for Chris Van Allsburg

The Purple Crayon’s Legacy, Part II: Picture Books

In the 58 years since its publication, Crockett Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon has appeared in 14 languages, and inspired many artists.  This blog (which takes its name from a line in the book) presented The Purple Crayon’s Legacy, Part I: Comics & Cartoons… nearly three years ago.  It is at last time for Part II: Picture Books.

Anthony Browne, Bear Hunt (1979)

Anthony Browne, Bear Hunt (1979)

As Harold does, Bear goes for a walk. As Harold does, Bear carries something to write with (a pencil instead of a crayon). And, as is the case with Harold, what Bear draws becomes real.  It’s true that, graphically, this is a very different book. Browne’s jungle scenes — all in color — recalls those of Henri Rousseau. Also, where Harold both creates and solves his problems, Bear’s problems — two hunters who want to shoot him — are not imagined. Fortunately, his pencil proves more powerful than their guns. I’m tempted to say that, in the book, the power to imagine a better reality trumps the power to kill. However, Browne handles this story with such a light touch that, while it may suggest such morals, that’s not the focus.

Jon Agee, The Incredible Painting of Felix Clousseau (1988)

Jon Agee, The Incredible Painting of Felix Clousseau

Felix Clousseau’s art looks ordinary, but it’s not.  His painting of a duck actually quacks. However, “that was only half of it,” observes Agee’s narrator as the duck leaves the painting.  This is one of the book’s sly jokes (if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck…), which include comic names of rival painters (such as Felicien CaffayOllay), several Magritte references, and the pun on the final page. No, I won’t give away the ending. Read it yourself.

Chris Van Allsburg, Bad Day at Riverbend (1995)

Chris Van Allsburg, Bad Day at Riverbend (1995)

In his Caldecott acceptance speech for Jumanji (1981), Chris Van Allsburg actually thanked “Harold, and his purple crayon.” He has elsewhere spoken of the book as the one he “remember[s] most clearly” from his childhood. Van Allsburg loved its theme of “the ability to create things with your imagination,” which, he says, is “a fairly elusive idea, but [the book] presents it so succinctly through these simple drawings that it registers very clearly.”

May of Van Allsburg’s books traverse (or blur) the line between imaginary and real, but Bad Day at Riverbend seems the most explicit homage to Johnson’s book. Rendered in coloring-book style, the people of Riverbend face a “greasy slime” that sticks aggressively to whatever it assaults. We readers recognize the “slime” as crayon scribbles, which (spoiler alert!) the book’s ending reveals to be true.  The townspeople are … the victims of a child with a crayon.

Thacher Hurd, Art Dog (1996)

Thacher Hurd, Art Dog (1996)

As Harold does, Art Dog creates art that changes physical realities. He also has his artistic adventures at night, beneath the moonlight. On one of the pages, he paints a somewhat goofy purple (with green spots) bird who reminds me of Harold’s drawings. Above the bird, on the wall, he has painted falling stars reminiscent of the one that Harold rides home in Harold’s Trip to the Sky (1957).

Some years ago, I wrote to Thacher Hurd to ask whether he or his parents (Clement Hurd and Edith Thacher Hurd) had known Johnson or Ruth Krauss. He said that they may have, though he had no memories of them. During our very brief email correspondence, I said “I’ve often thought that Harold would get along very well with Art Dog.” He responded, “Yes, I did put in a subtle aside to Harold and the Purple Crayon in Art Dog. I love that book, and loved it as a kid.”

Régis Faller, Voyage de Polo (2002: English translation: The Adventures of Polo, 2006) and its many sequels

Régis Faller, Le voyage de Polo (2002)

Wordless (save for the occasional sound effect), Faller’s Polo books have an associative narrative logic that’s evocative of the Harold stories’ structure.  In Voyage de Polo (The Adventures of Polo), he opens the door of his island tree home, walks over to a tightrope, and then starts carefully to make his way along it — shades of Harold’s tightrope act in Harold’s Circus (1959). The tightrope suddenly becomes stairs, which Polo then climbs — reminiscent of the stairs in Harold’s Fairy Tale (1957).  Beyond those direct visual allusions (or, at least, they feel like allusions), the story’s art manages to link each panel to the next, and then to the next.  You don’t quite know where Polo is going, but he’s traveling with a purpose, and fun to accompany for the duration of his journey.  More than anything else, the chain of associations most strongly reminds me of Harold’s stories.

Delphine Durand, Bob & Cie., (2004; English translation: Bob & Co., 2006)

Durand, Bob & Cie (2004): cover

A small book that begins with “a blank page” and then waits for “the story” to get underway, Durand’s Bob & Cie. (Bob & Co.) pursues the metaphysical implications of Harold’s predicament. Except, in this story, it’s Bob’s predicament. It’s hard to summarize. By turns whimsical and profound, Durand’s absurdist metafiction is about faith, narrative, the universe, beginnings and endings. It’s one of my all-time favorite books. Someday, I’d like to write (a blog post? an essay?) about Durand’s work.  Her sensibility and sense of humor appeal to me.

Patrick McDonnell, Art (2006)

The creator of the comic strip Mutts creates a story about a boy named Art who creates lots of art.  This conceit inspires many puns on the name, and, well, lots of art (and Art).  About a third of the way in, the book moves explicitly to Harold’s territory, when Art draws a house and then stands on the doorway in order to draw the roof.

from Patrick McDonnell, Art (2006)

Deborah Freedman, Scribble (2007)

Deborah Freedman, Scribble (2007)

When Emma insults her younger sister Lucie’s drawing of a kitty (“It looks like a scribble”), Lucie defends herself: “It’s a special scribble-kitty!” In retaliation, she scribbles all over Emma’s drawing of the Princess Aurora. Emma storms off.  Then Scribble, Lucie, and the sisters’ real cat step into the drawings — which is the moment that the book enters Harold’s realm. It’s telling that only the younger sister crosses the boundary from real to imaginary worlds. Perhaps Freedman is suggesting that only the youngest children — Lucie, Harold — can make that leap, and fully believe it.  Freedman’s second book, Blue Chicken (2011), also plays with the boundary between art and life.  But, this time, a chicken is the artist.

Allan Ahlberg & Bruce Ingman, The Pencil (2008)

Ahlberg and Ingman, The PencilA pencil (which appears itself to have been rendered in pencil) draws a boy, a dog, a cat, a house, a road, and a park.  As in Harold and the Purple Crayon, all things the pencil draws are real. The book departs from Johnson’s book when the pencil draws a paintbrush, who in turn colors everything the pencil draws. The decision to add color bends the narrative logic (how can a grey pencil draw color?), as does the decision to add an eraser (how can an eraser remove watercolors?). But the eraser proves a valuable antagonist. Just as the pencil draws enthusiastically, so the eraser embraces his function — threatening the world that pencil and paintbrush have created.  I wonder: what would have Harold done with an eraser?  He does cross things out (the witch in Harold’s Fairy Tale, the whole picture in A Picture for Harold’s Room), but he never erases.

Matteo Pericoli, Tommaso and the Missing Line (2008)

Pericoli, Tommaso and the Missing Line (2008)The line of the hill disappears from Tommaso’s drawing, which shows “a house on a hill, / a tall tree and some mountains. / And two people — / him and his grandma.”  So, of course, he goes off in search of it. On the right-hand page, Pericoli uses black ink for everything, except his character’s drawing and specific lines that Tommasso finds — those are all in orange. On the left-hand page, Pericoli places white text on an orange background. The orange at left makes each orange line at right “pop” out of the picture. Visually, it’s very effective.

Sure, Tommaso is also an artist, but, you ask, is there a more particular connection to Harold and the Purple Crayon?  There are several, first of which is that Tommaso does find his line — “as real as he always remembered it” — out in the world. So, as in Johnson’s book, art can become real.  Also, though Pericoli’s line is not as tight as Johnson’s, the pen-and-ink drawings on white pages evoke Johnson’s aesthetic sensibility.  Just as Harold’s purple line does, Tommaso’s orange line has as powerful a visual presence.

Any obvious (or not-so-obvious) books I’ve missed? I realize there are many other metafictional books (Scieszka and Smith’s The Stinky Cheese Man, Barbara Lehman’s The Red Book, to name but two) or aesthetically comparable books (Lehman, again, Newgarden and Cash’s Bow Wow series) or books about artists (Lionni’s Frederick, McClintock’s The Fantastic Drawings of Danielle). My list may be too narrow, but its idiosyncrasies will I hope inspire discussion.  So, let the discussion begin!

Related Posts:

(And, yes, I do plan further parts in this series — with luck, they’ll appear more swiftly than Part II!  Indeed, the blog has been quieter for this past month because, this summer, I’ve foolishly taken on more writing than I can cope with.  I’m struggling to keep my head [nearly] above water.)

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Desert Island Picture Books

On her blog today, Anita Silvey asks her “readers to weigh in with their list of five books that they can’t live without or the ones they read again and again.”  So, first, let me encourage you to weigh in over on her blog.  As soon as this post is up, I’ll do the same.  In order to narrow down the criteria a little bit, I’ve kept my focus to picture books only (though her query is more expansive than that).  So that I can expand my list to ten, I’ve also decided to post a list here.  And, yes, I’m well aware that all such lists are subjective.  Indeed, had I spent more time dwelling upon the question, I’m sure this list would change further.  Anyway.  Without further prologue, here are my…

Top 10 Desert Island Picture Books

Crockett Johnson, Harold and the Purple Crayon1. Crockett Johnson, Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955) because it’s the most succinct expression of imaginative possibility ever created.

2. Shaun Tan, The Arrival (2006) because it’s a richly imagined, beautifully rendered, wordless graphic narrative of immigration, dislocation, and hope.

3. Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson, The Story of Ferdinand (1936) because, with a mix of humor and gravity, it sustains many very different interpretations.

4. Delphine Durand, Bob & Co. (2006) because it’s a story about life, the universe, and story.

5. Chris Van Allsburg, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick (1984) because it offers an infinite number of stories.

6. Toby Speed and Barry Root, Brave Potatoes (2000) because it’s good poetry, good advice, and really funny.

7. Tim Egan, Friday Night at Hodges’ Cafe (1994) because it contains one of my favorite lines in all of children’s literature: “Too bad his duck was so crazy.”

Dr. Seuss, The Lorax

8. Virginia Lee Burton, The Little House (1942) because it’s an economically designed tale of change, entropy, and survival.

9. Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak, A Very Special House (1953) because “NOBODY ever says stop stop stop.”

10. Dr. Seuss, The Lorax (1971) because “UNLESS someone like you / cares a whole awful lot, / nothing is going to get better. / It’s not.”

A tough question!  I struggled – for example, I also wanted to include Seuss’s On Beyond Zebra! (1955) and Shaun Tan’s Tales from Outer Suburbia (2008), but I limited myself to one title per author/illustrator.  And, yeah, many other creators of picture books whose works ought to be here: Barbara Lehman, Peter Sís, Anthony Browne, Bryan Collier, Lane Smith, Peggy Rathman, Ezra Jack Keats, Kadir Nelson, Emily Gravett, Robert McCloskey, Jon Agee, Maurice Sendak (as author-illustrator, not just as artist, as he is here)….  And so on.

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Chris Van Allsburg’s True Story

Chris Van Allsburg, The Queen of the Falls (2011)His first non-fiction work, Queen of the Falls (2011) is also one of Chris Van Allsburg’s best.  Indeed, in some ways it marks a return to form.  After writing and illustrating a picture book each year for about 15 years, Van Allsburg stopped producing picture books for a while.  Following Bad Day at Riverbend (1995), he took a break.  Seven years passed before Zathura (2002), the sequel to Jumanji (1981) and the only so-so book in his career.  Four years later came Probuditi! (2006), a much stronger story than its predecessor and his first book to star African-Americans.  His new book is even better.  With Queen of the Falls, we’re back to the classic Van Allsburg of the 1980s and 1990s — but we’re also going somewhere he’s not gone before.  He’s using his gifts for the fantastic to make history live.

The story is true, but Van Allsburg does not abandon his penchant for surrealistic juxtapositions.  Describing Niagara Falls’ height “as tall as a seventeen-story building,” he fills a full page with a late-nineteenth-century building of precisely that height, rising up in the middle of the falls, water cascading around each side.  On the page opposite, in an inset illustration, a little girl’s face seems to look in the direction of this sight, inviting us to see it as more than just a visual metaphor — even though that’s all it is, as subsequent illustrations of the falls reveal.  For that moment, we believe that it’s real, and share her awe.  Other such juxtapositions derive not from the imagination but from apparent incongruities in the real world.  Annie Edson Taylor standing next to a barrel as large as she is, and the huge barrel’s sudden smallness when atop the vast falls recall Magritte’s experiments with size, like Le Tombeau des Luteurs (1960) or Les valeurs personnelles (1952).

It is also one heck of a story.  Annie Edson Taylor (1838-1921) was the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and survive.  The first man to achieve the same feat did so a full decade later.  When she did it, she was a 63-year-old widow.  And this was in 1901.  As Van Allsburg’s narrator reports, “Americans could not have been more amazed if they’d read a horse had hit a home run, or a baby had been elected president.  How could anyone, let alone a woman, survive a trip over Niagara Falls?”  Echoing his The Widow’s Broom (1992), Queen of the Falls critiques sexism without editorializing: the phrase “let alone a woman” registers as condescending, but he trusts readers to pick up on that.

While you read the book, you forget she survived … until she does survive.  Van Allsburg deftly creates suspense, allowing us to wonder.  Just prior to the plummet, a two-page spread shows the barrel a couple of feet from edge of the falls, where the waters rush down, beyond our view, past the bottom of the page.  At bottom right, a single line of text states: “‘Oh, Lord,’ she whispered, and then she was gone.”  Turn the page, and the next image is Annie, inside the barrel, her mouth open, eyes wide and looking heavenwards.  Even when you know the outcome, it’s hard not to feel her fear.

Here’s hoping that Mr. Van Allsburg creates more historical picture books. His narrative art draws us in, makes us think, makes us feel, makes us wonder. Who better to explore the mysteries of history?

Above, Van Allsburg talks about the creation of Queen of the Falls.

 

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