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Analysis of Chris Van Allsburg Books
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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).

      When 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.

      Both 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. 

      The pages 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.

      The style, 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.

      I would 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.

      Chris 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)" 

  

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