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Children, parents, educators, booksellers, and librarians have been known to occasionally develop an obsession with the books of Chris Van Allsburg. His work appeals to diverse audiences because it is neither simplistic nor predictable. Though perfectly accessible to children, Van Allsburg's stories and pictures never appear to be created exclusively for them. The only consistent element in his books is the always fascinating, often mysterious, and occasionally menacing way he approaches the question "What if?" What if a boy awoke one night to find a massive steam engine in front of his house? What if a roll of the dice on a simple board game could actually bring the game to life? What if a witch had to retire her flying broom?
Van Allsburg was raised in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He attended the University of Michigan with the vague idea of studying law, but the art courses he took as a lark proved more interesting than anything else he studied. In 1972, he graduated with a degree in sculpture and moved to Providence, Rhode Island, where he continued his studies at the Rhode Island School of Design. Shortly after he received his graduate degree, Van Allsburg began to show his sculptures in New York City galleries, where their surreal imagery quickly won him a reputation as an artist to watch. He didn't begin drawing until 1979, when a cold-sculpture studio too far across town encouraged him to spend evenings at home with a handful of pencils and a stack of paper.
The black-and-white artwork he created in carbon pencil and charcoal appealed to his wife, Lisa, a teacher who used picture books in her elementary school art classes. She felt her husband's pictures had the quality of illustration, and with the encouragement of a friend, the illustrator David Macaulay, she decided to show the work to children's book editors. In Boston, Lisa visited Walter Lorraine at Houghton Mifflin, Macaulay's editor. Lorraine looked at a drawing that showed a man biting into a china plate while his alarmed dinner partner looked on and said, "If he can get this much storytelling content into one piece of art, I know he can create a children's book." Lisa walked out with the promise of a contract—and the rest, as they say, is history.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has published seventeen of Van Allsburg's books: from his Caldecott Honor Award–winning first book, The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, to his recent nonfiction outing, The Queen of the Falls. The success of Van Allsburg's Jumanji and The Polar Express is no less than phenomenal. Both received Caldecott Medals, Jumanji was made into a movie in 1995, and The Polar Express, a contemporary classic with millions of copies sold, was a blockbuster film release in 2004. His third movie adaptation, Zathura, came out in November of 2005. The Widow's Broom, for which he wrote the screenplay, and The Sweetest Fig are also in development for the big screen.
Van Allsburg lives in Providence, Rhode Island, with his wife, Lisa, and two daughters, Sophia and Anna.