REVIEW: Chris van Allsburg at Literati Bookstore


For someone who never meant to be an artist or a writer, Chris van Allsburg has fallen into one giant success story of a career. With over 20 children’s books, including Caldecott Medal Winners ‘Jumanji’ and ‘The Polar Express’, Chris has undoubtedly one of the most magical voices in the literature world.

Sitting in the newly debuted second floor of the Literati Bookstore, I waited, buzzing with excitement, along with other fans, both young and old. A clean-cut man, with just a smattering of white hair trimmed carefully around his head and square black glasses, appeared behind the podium. He looked just like someone you would want writing your child’s stories.

“Well, let’s begin,” he said. Somehow, his almost solemn, dry humor could still light up the room, like the headlights of the Polar Express itself. Chris, a U-M graduate, told us his story about how in the good ole days, if you wanted to go to a university, you simply had an interview, brought in your high school transcript, and by the end of the talk, you knew if you were in or not. The college-age kids, including myself, let out a collective envious groan. Chris went into his U-M interview with his choice of school unmarked. With only his fingerprinting, model-building skills from 12 years ago to keep him afloat at college, he pressed on and said that he wanted to pursue Art and Design.

What began as a career in Sculpting (which he still does privately today), Chris fell into the publishing world when his wife showed his personal sketches to a children’s publishing house. They loved his work, and wanted him to illustrate their story ideas. But Chris refused to illustrate “stories about Duck’s first day of school.” He prefers to draw his own original drawings.

He went on to explain his style of “cognitive dissonance,” and showed us slides of his early drawings. A chair floating in the middle of an ocean.

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How did the chair get there? Did it fall off a ship? Is it close to shore? How long has it been there? Is it missing a leg? “Cognitive dissonance” can be defined as the uncomfortable tension that occurs when two conflicting images are unexpectedly juxtaposed. Chris is drawn to this psychological phenomenon, which explains why such strange things happen in his unconventional stories. Rhinos stampede through a perfectly plain house? Cognitive dissonance. A locomotive train hisses through a sleepy suburb street to transport a boy to the North Pole? Cognitive dissonance.

Chris van Allsburg is never afraid of the new. He’s expanded his oeuvre to include a children’s non-fiction biography, called “Queen of the Falls,” about Annie Edson Taylor, the 62-year-old woman who was the first person to survive riding down Niagara Falls in a barrel. He has also written a book called “Bad Day at Riverbend” which questions the feelings of coloring book characters. Do they disdain the fact that one day, their entire blank world will be covered with a waxy colorful goo? It’s questions like these that give children the opportunity to grow and think about the world in a different way.

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The actual purpose of van Allsburg’s reading was to promote his newest book, “The Misadventures of Sweetie Pie,” which follows the almost fatal escape of a hamster back to his place in the wilderness. I found the book a little disappointing in comparison to his older tales. Perhaps it was the absence of cognitive dissonance that did it. In some ways, writing about a hamster who feels lonely in his cage at school seemed just like the “duck’s first day of school” plotline line that Chris had rejected in the past. But I suppose it was worth a try.

Nevertheless, I think that Chris van Allsburg is an inspiration to all aspiring artists and storytellers alike. In an age when every day, we students are forced to think about our future and our career, van Allsburg is proof that ‘doing what you love and what you’re good at’ will get you where you need to be. When in doubt, just listen for the jingle of a sleigh bell…and keep faith.

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PREVIEW: Friday Night’s Alright for Reading

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Have you ever been in a writing class, received your red-marked paper back with critiques and underlines and “more sexual tension” here and “suspend reader disbelief” there, and wondered, “Gee, does my teacher practice what he/she preaches in his/her own writing?” Here’s your chance to find out!

What: A literary reading by five local authors, hosted by local publication, Midwestern Gothic

Who: Contributors include U-M English lecturer Julie Babcock, Ann Arbor News crime reporter John Counts, local authors Robert James Russell and Jared Yates Sexton, and the RC’s Laura Thomas.

When: Friday, November 7 at 5 pm

Where: Benzinger Library, East Quad

How Much?: Absolutely free!

To keep up on other creative writerly events in East Quad and around town, check out