Chris Van Allsburg
Quail Ridge Books & Music
Tuesday, Nov. 11, 7 p.m.

It’s funny how easy it is to think of Chris Val Allsburg’s picture books as whimsical tales for children. Sure, Jumanji seems like a delightful romp about a jungle-themed board game whose obstacles come to life until the young players finish, and The Polar Express is about a magical visit to Santa’s workshop at the North Pole. But there’s something richer, more mysterious and darker beneath the surface, and that’s what has kept his books alive in the imaginations of a generation of children–and led many to pass them down to their own children in turn.

Van Allsburg, who appears at Quail Ridge Books & Music on Nov.11, writes seemingly sweet, unassuming picture books that rely on two key rules. The first is that they respect the intelligence of their young readers to figure out what is happening long before the characters in the stories do. The second is to treat the supernatural elements in the stories with absolute realism.

When rhinos burst through the living room and monkeys menace the children playing Jumanji‘s titular game, Van Allsburg’s gorgeous black-and-white illustrations convey both the utter absurdity of what’s happening and the tangible sense of kids being stuck in a rapidly demolished house with killer jungle animals. The Polar Express is based on the simple childhood dream of meeting Santa, yet it starts with the unnerving situation of a strange train heading down the streets of a snowy suburban neighborhood, and ends on a note of loss, with a bell from Santa’s sleigh giving a ring that none but the narrator can hear (the popular motion-captured CGI movie version, with its bulky animated characters, is unsettling for completely different reasons).

Other Van Allsburg books almost have the feel of a Twilight Zone episode for children. The Wretched Stone is told from the journals of a sea captain whose crew is enraptured by a glowing stone, sitting around it with blank stares (any resemblance to television is purely coincidental). Bad Day at Riverbend explores the angst of the inhabitants of a black-and-white Western landscape where bursts of crayon color appear in blotches on the landscape. The Sweetest Fig gives a greedy, wish-seeking dentist a masterfully warped comeuppance (and a victory for Van Allsburg’s dog Fritz, who cameos in all of his works).

I didn’t encounter a few of these books until I was older and, even then, I was left with the sense that I was going to have a nightmare about them after closing the cover. Yet, kids love them–Van Allsburg is one of the most-requested authors to appear at Quail Ridge, according to store employees. Maybe it’s because even with the darkness in his work, there’s something deeply inviting in the beautiful illustrations, or because they don’t talk down to young readers–in their mysterious situations, they invite them to discover the stories on their own, and get the excitement that comes from figuring everything out.

I had a chance to talk to Van Allsburg a few years ago, and he said that his style came from an early work, The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, where he got to the last page and realized he didn’t know how to wrap up the book’s central mystery–so he didn’t. “The book doesn’t end when you close the covers because of this lack of resolution,” Van Allsburg said. “The reader is obliged to go, ‘What do I think happened in this story?’

“And when you open up space like that, the readers are obliged to bring their own deductive powers and reasoning and personality to the story. When you do that, you’re collaborating with your audience. And I haven’t found it personally difficult as a writer, because to me it just seems to be an engaging story form, to not indicate everything or solve all problems.”

My favorite Van Allsburg book, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, is all about that sense of mystery and possibility. It is, as Van Allsburg establishes in his introduction, a series of newly discovered titles, illustrations and excerpts from unrealized work by the titular Burdick, an illustrator who’s gone missing (Van Allsburg will not drop this pretense if you ask him about it). Each two-page spread is the set-up for some bigger story–Spielberg-type aliens visiting a sleeping child, asking “Is he the one?” or a house taking off like a rocketship, or a man raising a broom over an ominous-looking lump that’s risen under his carpet.

It has long been a staple of grade-school creative writing projects to have students come up with their own stories for these illustrations, and in 2011 there was an entire anthology of them, The Chronicles of Harris Burdick, featuring famous authors creating their own tales inspired by the pictures. But not even the likes of Cory Doctorow, Sherman Alexie, Stephen King (whose family used the book as a creative writing game), Wicked author Gregory Maguire or even Van Allsburg himself could quite capture the uncanny quality of making up your own stories from the images. The original Harris Burdick is that rare book that’s completely unique for every reader, because it demands bringing your own imagination to tell the story. Who can top that?

Van Allsburg’s newest book, The Misadventures of Sweetie Pie, promises to be his usual combination of light and darkness with its tale of a hamster who suffers through a variety of neglectful human owners. Or it could simply be as bright as its title suggests–an advance copy wasn’t available. But I’ll be there at Quail Ridge to see what it entails–and shake the hand of the man who gave me and so many other children dreams both wonderful and terrible.