Comparing The Polar Express and Bad Day at Riverbend
Chris Van Allsburg, the author of more than 10
books, has captivated the hearts of millions with his writing and illustration abilities.
Van Allsburg began his career as a sculptor, but fell into writing and illustrating with the help of his wife, Lisa,
and David Macaulay (Houghton Mifflin Company 1999, 2). Van Allsburg plays mind
games with readers with his surprising conclusions to the plots in his books. If
the words get you 'hooked', then his representational illustrations are going to capture and reel you in with the 'line and
sinker'. Van Allsburg has become the master of illustrations that look real and
ordinary, but have the feeling of something mysterious is still left to figure out.
Van Allsburg has written two such story picture books: The Polar Express and Bad Day at Riverbend.
In The Polar Express, Van Allsburg has written a wonderful Christmas story of a little
boy who is lying patiently, in bed, for Santa Claus to come, so that he may hear the sounds of "the ringing bells of Santa's
sleigh." The sounds that some people forget to hear. As he lays waiting, the little boy hears strange sounds of "squeaking metal" outside coming from a train. As the little boy checks out the train, the conductor asked if he wants to get on
board the train, the Polar Express. Once aboard, the boy lives everyones' childhood
dreams of chocolaty cocoa, sweet rich candy, singing of Christmas songs, staying up late, and visiting the North Pole. As the train rolls its way northward, it travels through a great wilderness forest,
over the Great Polar Ice Cap, and finally rest in the center of the North Pole village where all the elves are waiting. Santa appears and selects the little boy as the one to receive "The first gift of
Christmas!" Not wanting much, he asked Santa if he could have one little silver sleigh bell.
Santa present the silver bell, flies off, and the children are back on board the Polar Express. Just before the train pulls out, the little boy notices that his silver bell is missing, having fallen
out of a hole in his pocket. With his head hanging low, the little boy says goodbye to the others and returns to his bed. On Christmas morning, his little sister finds the last gift to be opened under the
tree with his name on it. Low and behold inside he finds the silver bell. He "shook the bell. It made the most
beautiful sound my sister and I had ever heard," but it was unheard by his parents (Van Allsburg 1985, The Polar Express).
In Bad Day at Riverbend, Van Allsburg has taken the readers to the western town of Riverbend,
where nothing exciting ever happens. Sheriff Ned Hardy returns inside to his
office after witnessing a suspicious bright light in the sky. One of the towns
children, Owen Buck, knocks on the sheriffs door loudly, but is "breathing so hard he could barely speak." Owen and the sheriff ran outside to find a driverless stagecoach parked in the middle of town. The horses are all covered with bright red squiggly marks going in all directions. Sheriff Hardy "follows the wagon's trail" of messy, greasy, red lines to see if he can locate the missing
coachman. The coachman is covered to have the same greasy, squiggly marks in
red, blue, and green that the horses had. Sheriff Hardy begins his way back to
town, when is spots the mysterious light again. Upon arriving in town, the sheriff
is horrified to find the town, and a few people have been captured hostage by the same greasy slime. Sheriff Hardy, showing signs of bravery, "inspired the others" and "they joined him" as the posse rode
out to find out what horrible thing has held their town captive. As they rode,
they followed the trails of greasy, slimy colors until they came faced-to-faced with a tall man "made entirely of the greasy
stuff." The posse believed this man was the cause of the towns greasy, slimy
trouble and had to be stopped before any one else was harmed. As the "silent
signal" was given, the posse rode over the hill only to find themselves "frozen in the bright light." They, and all of Riverbend, had become victims of a little boy coloring in a cowboy coloring book (Van
Allsburg 1995, Bad Day at Riverbend).
comparing The Polar Express and Bad Day
at Riverbend, one can see that Chris Van Allsburg loves to keep his readers guessing and on the ends of their seats until
the very end. The illustrations in his books are similar because "Chris
believes that making a book is a lot like a movie. The illustrator is like the
director the person who decided where to place the camera. (Kovacs 1991, 63)"
The view points of the pictures change from page to page. On one page,
the reader may have an aerial picture that is viewed looking down on the scene, one may be head on and viewed normally, or
you could find illustrations where characters have a point-of-view where they are looking up from the ground.
In The Polar Express, Van Allsburg chose to use dark opaque colors, in reds and browns, that give the reader a sense
of mystery, while in Bad Day at Riverbend, the town and its people are drawn in
dark outline forms only, until the last two pages where Van Allsburg returns to the darker colors to reveal the culprit. The illustrations complement the books greatly. They help supply the mood and
give characters emotions.
books have enjoyable well constructed plots to figure out. In The Polar Express,
readers find out that the missing bell was found and returned to the little boy by Santa Claus. In Bad Day at Riverbend, an adult reader knows what the greasy stuff is, but it is wonderful to
see the expressions on children's faces when they realize that the book is a coloring book and a child is coloring in it.
and the layouts of the book each lend to make them unique and different. The
pages for The Polar Express have a shine to them that helps catch the light and
shows-off the light snow as it falls. The layout is wonderful. The pictures, in this extra wide book, cover three-fourths of both pages, helping to tell the story, while
leaving the edges for the story to be told. The story and the pictures
are outlined which give the book a clean, crisp look. On the over hand, the pages
for the extra long, Bad Day at Riverbend, are on an off-white sturdy paper that
has no shine to it. The words are placed at the top and bottom of the pages again
lending way for the illustrations to help tell the story by showing characters emotions.
of writing, for both books is straight forward and includes natural dialogue that is suitable for each developed character. These books can be read by children and adults, but parents would get more delight
reading them to their children to see the magic and suspense unfold in their eyes.
consider the theme of these books to be one of children. Children love the magic
time of Christmas, that is portrayed in The Polar Express and they love to scribble
lines in coloring books as the little boys does in Bad Day at Riverbend. It is a shame that as adults we tend to loose both.
Van Allsburg has brought us two uniquely different picture storybooks that display similar characteristics. Pulling together plots, styles, layouts and illustrations in a remarkable and outstanding way, it is no
wonder why he has been the only person to win the Caldecott Medal Award twice: Jumanji (1981) and The Polar Express (1985). "Many critics believe that Chris Van Allsburg is one of the finest illustrators making
books today. (Kovacs 1991, 63)"
Resources used for Author Study