When actor Tom Hanks and director Robert Zemeckis sought to bring
the classic "The Polar Express" to the big screen, their chief
challenge was more visual than literary.
Author and artist Chris Van Allsburg's 1985 book tells the story
of a boy who rides a fantasy railroad to the North Pole. For the
filmmakers, capturing the essence of Mr. Van Allsburg's painterly
illustrations proved to be complex, requiring pricey digital
animation. They determined that the trouble and expense were
necessary, because much of the book's enduring appeal lies in its
haunting pictorial magic.
The success of the film version of "The Polar Express" has helped
write a new chapter in the history of children's-book illustration.
In recreating the dreamlike ambiance of Van Allsburg's tale, the
movie has added momentum to an awareness of children's books as
works of visual art.
From "Winnie the Pooh" to Dr. Seuss, a long legacy exists of
crossover hits from book to film. But literary art for children is
far more than cartoons. "Picture-book art is understudied and
undervalued," says Jane Bayard Curley, a Yale-trained art historian.
"I see it as a child's first experience of art."
Ms. Curley, a one-time children's librarian, is an independent
curator specializing in such art. Picture books are "a universal
shared language, worthy of examination," she says. "A great picture-
book artist inspires readers to see something they've never seen
before." The best artists, who typically write as well as illustrate
their books, "expect their audience to live up to the words and
images they use."
Curley recently organized "The Mysteries of Chris Van Allsburg,"
an exhibition of original drawings and sculptures, for the Eric
Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Mass. The two-year-old
museum, the first of its kind in the United States, is dedicated to
exhibiting and promoting children's book art from around the world.
It has displayed work by Maurice Sendak, Nancy Ekholm Burkert, and
Margot and Kaethe Zemach as well as artists from the Netherlands,
Japan, and Russia. It was founded by Eric Carle, creator of one of
children's literature's most beloved stories, "The Very Hungry
Mr. Carle's "Caterpillar" eats his way through a kaleidoscopic
array of foods on his way to becoming a butterfly. Where Van
Allsburg's pictures in "Polar Express" recall the austere tension of
Edward Hopper and the surreal surprise of Rene Magritte, Carle's
vivid paper collages evoke Paul Klee's childlike wit and the color-
drenched extravagance of Henri Matisse. (See accompanying interview,
Comparisons to those artists are more than simply illustrative.
Today's picture-book masters are perhaps closer in spirit to the
modernists than to their own genre's forebears, such giants of
children's illustration from a century ago as Howard Pyle and N.C.
Wyeth. Children's artists today can range far from the spirit of
"Treasure Island" and "Little Women," entering realms of dream life
and the subconscious beyond the basic text plot.
"Subject matter is only the tiniest part of what a picture is,"
says Van Allsburg. He has written 15 books, including "Jumanji,"
which was made into a movie, as well as illustrated the works of
other writers. "The Polar Express" was awarded a Caldecott Medal.
Though he deliberately chooses a different drawing medium with
each new project, Van Allsburg's work is unified by what Curley
describes as a "deep psychological space that only the rarest
artists achieve." The intensity comes from startling visual
incongruities - a pair of rhinos rampaging through a drawing room,
the Eiffel Tower drooping like a tulip, a locomotive on a snowy
residential street - presented in an utterly unemotional,
technically refined style. …