Chris Van Allsburg on Picture Book Writing

By Maryann Yin 

More than 25 years ago, children’s author Chris Van Allsburg published The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, a collection of 14 mysterious illustrations.

For The Chronicles of Harris Burdick, Van Allsburg teamed up with thirteen fellow writers to create short stories inspired by these drawings. The group of authors include Sherman Alexie, M.T. Anderson, Kate DiCamillo, Cory Doctorow, Jules Feiffer, Stephen King, Tabitha King, Lois Lowry, Gregory Maguire, Walter Dean Myers, Linda Sue Park, Louis Sachar, Jon Scieszka and an introduction by Lemony Snicket.

This powerhouse group of writers has collectively won one Pulitzer Prize, three National Book Awards, five Newbery Medals and several Caldecotts.

When the authors were trying to pick an art piece for themselves, Van Allsburg (pictured, via) volunteered to take whichever one was left for last. We caught up with Van Allsburg to talk about his Harris Burdick story, illustrating and the future of children’s literature.

Here are the highlights…

Q: What do you think is the best way to self-edit?
A: In initial drafts, not at all; I believe in just dumping it out in the first draft. Often, it’s the result of a first draft that you have a clearer idea of what the story is. The self-editing process begins in subsequent drafts. For a picture book maker, what I’ve found is that after having done a few drafts and gotten the story to the point where I think I’m telling it the most economically, the most correctly and still retaining a little poetry.

When I finally do the pictures that accompany that text, I find that there’s still more material in the text than I need. By editing the text even more dramatically, you start to lay some of the storytelling burden on the pictures and that’s when a picture book really works. When you aren’t worried about what’s happening or characterizations; simply by reading or simply by looking at the pictures they are supporting each other.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you can offer aspiring illustrators and children’s writers?
A: The same thing I would offer to aspiring baseball players which is to do it often and to expose yourself to the efforts of people you believe do it well. Those who do it well will be an inspiration to you and the time you spend doing it will create a kind of self-revelation that will make you better at it.

Q: Describe the writing process for your short story, “Oscar and Alphonse.” Was it freeing to create simply from an illustration or did you find yourself wishing you could consult with Harris Burdick for feedback?
A: There were things in the drawing that could’ve been points of departure for me. It was not simply a girl holding caterpillars that evidently communicate with her. There was a setting; she was in a woodland space. She was in a white shirt, which is odd and I thought perhaps that would’ve indicated that Burdick meant to represent someone who is a private school. She had a very large right hand but I didn’t know if that was a drawing error of Burdick’s or perhaps that was a story component.

This is a girl who had over-sized extremities and whether or not I should include that in it. If you look at the picture very carefully, make a list of five or six things including possible age and then decide which one of those things to include in your story. I took some of those things as starting points. And then I think like many authors, no matter what sort of original material that sets you off on the trail of your story, you’re still going to carry along with you the themes that motivate you whenever you sit down to write.

Q: As both an author and an illustrator, describe the process you undergo when you take on a project requiring that you create everything.
A: People have asked me a lot, ‘What comes first? The pictures or the story? The story or the picture?’ It’s hard to describe because often they seem to come at the same time. I’m seeing images while I’m thinking of the story. The advantage of doing both of them, of not collaborating with an illustrator or as an illustrator not collaborating with a writer, is that you have a control and a mastery over the universe that you’re making…I’ve always thought of the book as a visual art form and it should represent a single artistic idea which it does if you write your own material.

Q: Vampires, dystopian, greek myths; do you have any predictions on the next big IT trend in children’s publishing?
A: It’s hard to say; certainly the times we live in suggest that there may be further exploration of dystopian futures. But it might be there’s an impulse to address a gloomy mood by revisiting utopian idea that provide either an alternative or provide simply an escape.

Q: What’s next for you?
A: A dystopian story about a very small furry animal.