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Caldecott Winning Illustrators Series: Chris Van Allsburg

The Caldecott Medal is awarded annually to an illustrator whose work on a children's book represents some of the best art in the field. Today, we focus on a writer/illustrator whose books were named a Caldecott Honor book in 1979 and who won the Caldecott Medal in both 1982 and 1986. Chris Van Allsburg's Caldecott-winning books were met with critical and commercial success and have been adapted into much-loved films. This master of his craft has created some of the most beloved books of the last few decades, now considered classics. Join us as we look at Van Allsburg's impressive career in today's edition of our Caldecott Winning Illustrators series.

Who is Chris Van Allsburg?

Chris Van Allsburg was born in 1949 to a Dutch family in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He went on to study sculpture at the University of Michigan and the Rhode Island School of Design. After graduating, he set up his sculpture studio but struggled to find work and make consistent money. His wife, believing his sketches were ideally suited to children's books, showed some of his work to an editor, and Van Allsburg's career was born. He has published 21 books and earned multiple Caldecott Medals and Caldecott Honors. Several of his books have been adapted into successful films, which are classics in their own right. His trademark realistic style and imaginative stories make him one of the most beloved children's book writers today.

Examining Van Allsburg's Artistic Style
polar express

Van Allsburg is known for the nearly photo-realistic style of illustration. Achieved mainly with charcoal for his black and white works, such as Jumanji, Van Allstadt also works with pastels and colored pencils. This attention to detail and the sharp physicality of his settings and characters could be attributed to his background and training as a sculptor.

Where else have you heard of Van Allsburg?

Whether or not you recognize his name, you have likely heard of one of Val Allsburg's stories. His books Jumanji, Zathura, and Polar Express have all been made into films. He was also a developmental artist for Disney's classic film, The Little Mermaid. His artwork has also been featured on the 1993 edition of C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia cover.


Collecting Van Allsburg


Van Allsburg's second book, Jumanji, earned him the Caldecott Medal in 1982. In this classic, two siblings find an abandoned jungle-themed board game that turns out to be magical, setting a variety of wild animals loose in their home. They can only eliminate the animals by winning the game and yelling, “Jumanji!” The book was adapted into a successful film starring Robin Williams and Kirsten Dunst in 1995 and has since spawned a sequel film series with Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Jack Black, Kevin Hart, and Karen Gillan.

Polar Express

In 1986, Van Allsburg won his second Caldecott Medal for his now-classic Christmas story, Polar Express. This enduring story of hope and Christmas spirit is a must-have for anyone collecting Val Allsburg and makes a beautiful holiday gift for children. When a young boy hears a magical train on Christmas Eve, he is whisked off with other children to the North Pole, where he is chosen to receive the first gift of Christmas. He chooses a bell from Santa's reindeer to help him remember. As he grows up, he can always hear the bell, while others, like his sister and friends, lose their ability to hear it ring as they grow older and stop believing in Santa Claus. The book was adapted into a film starring Tom Hanks in 2004.

The Garden of Abdul Gasazi

zathuraVan Allsburg's first book, The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, was named a Caldecott Honor book in 1979. The book follows Alan, a boy who watches a neighbor's dog while she goes out of town and loses him in the gardens of renowned magician Abdul Gasazi, who transforms the dog into a duck and causes numerous problems for Alan. A film version of the book has been in development since 2019.


Fans of Van Allsburg's Jumanji should consider its 2002 follow-up, Zathura. Conceived as a loose sequel, the book opens with two brothers finding the Jumanji board game, though they end up abandoning it after losing interest. However, one of the brothers finds a second game in the Jumanji box, Zathura, and the two end up on a dangerous intergalactic adventure where they face meteors, an alien race, and all manner of space-related peril as they try to win the board game and make their way home. Nods to the original are interspersed throughout both the story and the illustrations. The book was adapted into the film Zathura: A Space Adventure, starring Kristin Stewart, Josh Hutcherson, and Dax Shepherd.

Browse our Caldecott Winners!

Adrienne Rivera
Adrienne Rivera received her MFA in fiction from Southern Illinois University Carbondale. She currently lives in southern Indiana.


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