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BOOK REVIEWS, Early/Young Readers, Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Middle Grade Readers, Picture Books, Read-Aloud Suggestions, Teacher & Parent Recommendations

CHRIS VAN ALLSBURG: picture books for all ages

My first exposure to Chris van Allsburg was in 1985 when a family for whom I babysat gave me a copy of The Polar Express, which had just been published and won the Caldecott Award (for illustrating children’s literature).  Like most others who have since read and enjoyed the book I was mesmerized by the illustrations and the story combined.  It was later the first Chris van Allsburg book I read to my children.

I have seen the movie JUMANJI (made in 1995, starring Robin Williams, Bonnie Hunt, David Alan Grier and a young Kirsten Dunst–with Bebe Neuwirth in a small role as well), but did not realize it was based on another picture book by Chris van Allsburg (published in 1981).  Recently I checked out Jumanji from the library, as well as its sequel Zathura (published in 2002).

Jumanji also won the Caldecott Award for its illustrations and it was well-deserved.  The illustrations in both books are black and white and amazing in their depth and detail.  I read these as bedtime stories with my children (who are 7 and 8, going into 2nd & 3rd Grade).  Both children were fascinated with the story of a board game coming alive in such a wildly adventurous way.  As soon as we finished Jumanji they wanted to read Zathura. Zathura continues the story of Jumanji with another pair of siblings finding the same game.  When these brothers play the game they are thrust into a space, rather than a jungle, adventure.  Jumanji has the stronger story line, but both books held my children entranced from beginning to end.

Van Allsburg’s newest book is Queen of the Falls.  It is the story of Annie Taylor, the first woman to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel. We read this as a family for a bedtime story this evening and all four of us really enjoyed the story.  As adults, my husband and I were familiar with the idea of going over the falls in a barrel, and knew that some people had done it, but neither of us knew anything about the first person to do so.  Our children were fascinated by the whole idea.  The vocabulary and details in the story are exciting and keep the story moving.  Our entire family enjoyed the story and it gave us a new topic for discussion after we had finished reading–as well as the childrens’ request to visit Niagara Falls.  The illustrations do not disappoint fans of Van Allsburg.  They are black and white and rich in detail and substance.  The confusion of the 1901 public when confronted with the contradiction of Annie’s actions and her appearance–a key element of her story–is captured perfectly in the illustrations.

There is quite a lot of text on each page so these picture books are great for older children.  They are great choices for independent reads and for read-alouds at home and in the classroom.  Van Allsburg’s body of work includes many other picture books as well, but these are the ones with which I am the most familiar.

I think it’s important not to forget about picture books when children progress to reading chapter books.  They are still a great imagination tool–especially in the hands of those such as Chris van Allsburg.


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