On November 10, 2004, author and illustrator Chris Van Allsburg was interviewed by Scholastic students and teachers. Van Allsburg's books include The Polar Express and Jumanji .
For the transcript of a previous interview, please click here.
Where did you get the idea for The Polar Express? Mrs. Moore's third grade class, Jacksonville, North Carolina
I got that idea... that's a tough one... because I went to the North Pole when I was eight years old. The train came, and I went up there, and many years later I decided I would write about it. It was very, very cold.
Is the boy's character based on you as a child? Kyle G., age 8, Jacksonville, North Carolina
That boy is me.
Do you believe in magic?
I believe that there will be many things that happen to me in my life that I will not be able to explain. Some of those might be magic. I'm not sure.
Why did you choose a train instead of something sort of magical?
Trains are very magical, and I didn't choose the train; the train chose me.
How did you get the idea for Jumanji ?
When I was a little boy and I would play games like Monopoly, they seemed kind of exciting, but when I was done with the game, all I had was fake money. So I thought that it would be fun and exciting if there were such a thing as a game board where whenever you landed on a square and it said something was going to happen, then it would really happen.
Mr. Van Allsburg, my third grade class and I are really enjoying your books. We're doing an author study on you right now and they get so excited when I crack open a new book. We were wondering how you come up with the titles to your books? They are always so interesting. Thank you in advance, Andrea Fehler, Ontario Canada
I usually pick out the titles after I've written the story, and sometimes it seems like an easy choice, like with the story of two bad ants, it would be obvious to call it Two Bad Ants . With stories like Jumanji and Zathura , those were places that were in the game. One was a city in a jungle, and one was a planet in outer space, and I made those names up but I thought they would also make good titles for the stories. I like the sounds of those words. They seem strange and far, far away.
Stuart from W. Englewood asks: How old were you when you started writing books?
I was very old. I was about 28-29 when I wrote my first story, and that was called The Garden of Abdul Gasazi .
What medium do you use to draw your pictures? Josh, GA
I use many different things. I use charcoal pencils. I use colored pencils, pastels. I use a little watercolor sometimes. I use pen and ink, and I use something a little different for each book because that way it is always interesting for me to make the pictures.
Do you do any prewriting activities like story maps or brainstorming?
Brainstorming, for me, takes place in my bed at night between the time I turn out my lights and I finally fall asleep. It is not a very violent storm, but what's happening is I am just thinking about different ideas and maybe things I've seen that day that I think might make a good story. When I have actually decided that an idea might become a good story, I write story outlines. These outlines describe pretty much what happens in the story. It's an outline that tells about the action of the story, and then when I have an outline, I start writing the story with the words that I intend to show, not just the action but the feeling of the story.
Why don't you put parents in most of your books?
( laughs ) The books I write are like adventure stories. They are often very strange adventures. I remember as a child, that it was always easier to have an adventure if my mom and dad weren't along.
Which of your characters is most like you and why?
I don't know. That might be captain in The Wretched Stone because sometimes I feel like I am a captain on a ship with a crew that won't listen to me.
Why do you put your dog in all your books?
When I wrote The Garden of Abdul Gasazi , I knew that I wanted a particular kind of dog to put into the pictures. When I draw things, I like to have models, to look at the thing I am drawing. So the dog that I wanted was a bull terrier, but unfortunately, I did not know one. My brother-in-law wanted to buy a dog at that time, and I talked him into getting a bull terrier. Now I had my model. This dog was named Winston, and I drew many pictures of him when I drew pictures for The Garden . Not long after I finished the book, Winston was, I am sorry to say, hit by a car. Because I was thankful to Winston for the help he'd given me, I decided that I would have him in each of my books.
We REALLY want to know, is the wretched stone a television?
( laughs ) Well, it might be a television, but then again, it might be a video game. It might be a computer screen. It might be anything that keeps you from using your own imagination.
What is your favorite hobby other than writing?
I like tennis and riding my bike and kicking my computer around.
How did you learn to draw?
When I was in first grade, I drew the kinds of things my friends would draw. And we decided to draw cartoon characters. So I could draw Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck and a pretty good Goofy. But my specialty was Dagwood Bumstead. He was a character in a cartoon called Blondie . Dagwood loved to eat very, very big sandwiches. Not only could I draw Dagwood, but I could draw the very big sandwiches. As I got older, I didn't spend so much of my time drawing as I did building model cars and model planes. And then when I went to college, I made sculpture. And then I started writing books after I got out of college and I really taught myself how to draw.
Of all of the books you've written, do you have a favorite?
When people ask me which of my books is my favorite, I always tell them that it is my next book. The reason my next book will be my favorite is because I believe it will be better than all the ones I've done before. If it weren't, I wouldn't bother to do it.
Do you have a favorite author other than yourself? A favorite book that has inspired you?
The book that I remember best from my own childhood is a very simple book that doesn't have very fancy drawings in it but has a wonderful and simple story. It is called Harold and the Purple Crayon . And when I actually started writing books of my own, the artist/author that I admired the most and still admire is Maurice Sendak, who did Where the Wild Things Are .
Why are your pictures so peculiar?
Because I am so peculiar. Or at least my ideas about what makes an interesting picture are a little peculiar. I don't think ordinary things are very interesting, so I try to imagine a world that is less ordinary.
How can you come up with ideas? I mean, I can barely come up with my ideas for books.
Ideas for stories are all around you. If you see a lonely dog on the street, that might be the beginning of a story. Whose dog is that? Did that dog escape from the circus? Is that dog looking for his brother? Was that dog a subject of a scientific experiment?
What made you think of using the bells from the sleigh as the first gift of Christmas in The Polar Express ? From Brandon, age 8, at Adobe Bluffs
When I took that trip, it was the thing I wanted most because when I was eight and lying there on Christmas Eve, I was worried that I wouldn't hear it again. So when I had a chance to actually be given one of the bells, I realized I wouldn't have to worry about it again because I'd always have my own. And I still have it.
Did you have more creative control over the movie The Polar Express than Jumanji ?
Authors of books are not given very much control over the films that are made from their books. In both Jumanji and The Polar Express , the films are mostly the efforts of the filmmakers. I was always told how things were being put together and how the story was being changed or expanded, but I was not one of the people who was deciding exactly what would happen in the film.
Who was the guy in your book The Stranger ?
I think, but I'm not absolutely sure, that it's Jack Frost. At least he looks a lot like Jack Frost.
Have you ever started a book and couldn't finish it? Mario in PA, Grade 5
No. Though I have spent that time that I talked about earlier - the little brainstorm that happens when I lie in bed - and I think of an idea that seems like it may lead to a good story, and I'll think about that over and over again and finally decide that it doesn't lead there. But once I start writing, I've usually thought enough about a story that it works out and I always finish it.
Do you still believe in Santa Claus? Jesse, Florida
Could the person in The Stranger have been the spirit of the wind, instead of Jack Frost? I thought so. Tyler, age 8, at Adobe Bluffs
Since I am not absolutely sure who the stranger is, then of course it could be someone else or some other spirit if that's what the reader believes.
Mrs. Zuber's class likes all of your books a lot. We would like to know if you have any ideas from your next book that you can share with us.
I've been thinking of a few different ideas, and one idea that interests me was a result of reading a nursery rhyme. It's one I'm sure everyone is familiar with. It's Jack and Jill, which as you know, reads like this: "Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water. Jack fell down and broke his crown, and Jill came tumbling after." Now, what most people don't know is that that is not the end of the rhyme. It actually goes on like this: "Jack got up and off did trot as fast as he could caper to old Dame Dobbs who fixed his knob with vinegar and brown paper." Now, when I read this, it occurred to me that there was a character in the world of Mother Goose besides Jack who could have been helped by old Dame Dobb, and who is that character? Who else in Mother Goose had a very bad head injury? It has to be Humpty Dumpty. So I have been wondering: if all the king's men couldn't put Humpty Dumpty back together, maybe old Dame Dobb could. And if she could, then maybe we could find out what Humpty Dumpty was doing on that wall in the first place and how it was that he came to fall.
Will the mystery of what happened to Harris Burdick's writings ever be solved? Maybe in a mysterious sequel? We love writing stories to go with your pictures because they make us imagine all kinds of stuff that might have happened!! Leon and Helen from Adobe Bluffs, grade 3
Some more clues about Burdick have been discovered, and you can learn about those in an introduction that appears with the portfolio version of the Burdick Drawings. I am still waiting to solve the mystery of Burdick and believe that one day, someone will read about him and reveal all.
How old are you? Do you have any kids?
I am 55 years old. I am married to Lisa, and I have one daughter whose name is Sophia, who is 13 years old and another daughter named Anna, who is 9 years old.