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BGHB at 50: The Garden of Abdul Gasazi: A Personal Recollection

In celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Boston Globe–Horn Book Awards, established in 1967, we will be publishing a series of appreciations of BGHB winners and honorees from the past. This is the second in the series to be published in The Horn Book Magazine (see Gregory Maguire’s article on Jill Paton Walsh’s Unleaving). Further installments will appear in the Magazine and on hbook.com/bghb throughout 2017.

Boy gets dog, boy loses dog, boy gets dog back. Okay, there’s a little more to the plot of Chris Van Allsburg’s The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, winner of the 1980 Boston Globe–Horn Book Award for Picture Book (and recipient of a Caldecott Honor) — the part where the dog is transformed into a duck is a charming variation on the old tale. Here’s how the story goes: young Alan Mitz is asked by his neighbor Miss Hester to look after her wayward bull terrier, Fritz, for the day. On their afternoon walk, Fritz runs off and enters the enchanted grounds of the titular magician, who doesn’t like dogs and so turns them into ducks. To make matters worse, Alan watches the newly feathered Fritz fly away, taking Alan’s hat with him. What will he tell Miss Hester? Suffice it to say, there is a most agreeable ending, with a satisfyingly mysterious coda.

While Abdul Gasazi, Van Allsburg’s first book, never became as famous as his later picture books Jumanji or The Polar Express (both of which won Caldecott Medals and were made into major motion pictures), it contains much of his trademark quirkiness, offbeat imagination, and a magic very much rooted in but subverting the real world. And, on a more personal note, Van Allsburg was a primary influence in starting my own career as a children’s book author. The title of my first picture book, Zoom at Sea (published in Canada by Groundwood Books in 1983), bears a phonemic resemblance to Jumanji, a curious coincidence that was brought to my attention only many years later. But though I wrote Zoom at Sea because of Van Allsburg, it wasn’t Jumanji that inspired me, but The Garden of Abdul Gasazi.

* * *

It was the magic of the book’s art that did the trick. The shock of a lavish picture book in black and white.

Ah, but there is really very little of either blackness or whiteness in the book’s sumptuous, shimmering pages. What is left of whiteness on a Van Allsburg spread is more like the brightness of light in full sunlight — it’s not absence of color so much as effulgence. As for complete blackness, there are but two instances in the book’s art. The first is the doorway inside Abdul Gasazi’s grand sitting room, the one leading to…well, probably the back of beyond. The rectangular black hole perfectly fills the space between young Alan, apologizing and asking for the dog back, and the monumentally impressive owner of the mansion into which Alan has been summoned. There is also true blackness on the very last page in the line of trees separating Miss Hester on her porch from the night sky that is rich in glowing darkness and the scattered light of stars. And the endpapers! Purest, deepest black.

It wasn’t just the opulence of the tonal range Van Allsburg achieved in the book that got to me back then. It was the gravity — the solidity — of everything. Alan Mitz isn’t so much a boy as a perfect sculpture of one. And the naughty Fritz, who leads Alan on his adventure, is equally sculptural. (In Jumanji, the same bull terrier is literally a sculpture: a pull toy.) The book begins, as it ends, on Miss Hester’s porch, and Alan, in our introduction to him, is every bit as sturdy as the posts and beams of Miss Hester’s house. He stands out partly because the stripes of his shirt are horizontal in an otherwise vertical array of architectural permanence.

* * *

In a sense, the human characters in any of Van Allsburg’s many books are no more nor less alive than the furniture, the objects, a point made abundantly clear in the fourth illustration in Abdul Gasazi, where Alan, desperately chasing Fritz and heading into the magician’s garden, is flanked by two Grecian statues of boys, running just like him and yet frozen in time. Upon rereading the book, these many years later, I couldn’t help wondering if they had been foolish lads turned into marble for daring to go where they were not welcome. They stand where sentinels might stand, to either side of an impressive entranceway, but instead of keeping watch they seemed to have turned on their plinths to point the way as Alan crosses the garden’s threshold.

We never see a close-up of Alan. His features are expressive but simple, as if carved. The great Gasazi himself looks like nothing so much as one of those massive stone carvings on Easter Island.

There is nothing wispy or ephemeral about Van Allsburg’s drawing. What magic there is always seems rooted in the real world. On his website there are images of his sculptural work in bronze and wood and clay. Here is where the substantiality comes from, but also the artist’s tipsy sense of humor. And that is certainly to be found in Abdul Gasazi. I love, for instance, the material weight of the sofa in the second illustration, with Alan asleep atop it and Fritz’s nose sticking out from under it. Such stillness, and yet the page is suffused with life and nicely foreshadows the escapade ahead. For above Alan’s weary head is a framed picture featuring a bridge and in the foreground two trees, one leaning left, one leaning right. There are two bridges that Alan will cross to reach the magician’s house, and after the second of them he will pass two trees leaning at just the same angles as those in the painting. The picture sits above the settee like a silent caption — a dream, or the presage of one.

Then there is Miss Hester’s floral wallpaper. The same four-petal flower pattern comes to leafier life when, later, we see the same pattern in Gasazi’s much grander sitting room—the fabric of the chair and ottoman and the border on the rug. Now the flowers have acquired pistils, as well as vines and leaves. While the change is not extravagant, this more lively design seems to say that in Alan’s dream — if indeed it is a dream — everything is more bountiful than in the humdrum world we’ve left behind.

In my very favorite of Van Allsburg’s books, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, we see in one drawing a wallpaper print featuring a geometric pattern of birds, one of which is taking flight. In a Van Allsburg drawing the very wallpaper might take off on you: everything may be still, ostensibly inert, but there’s no guarantee it will stay that way.

As anyone who has ever shared a book with small children knows, the pre-literate reader is, indeed, a reader, scrutinizing the pictures with an intensity of gaze that surpasses that of many of us whose powers of observation have dwindled, been compromised, by learning to read only the words. How or whether a child interprets what he or she sees is not the point I’m making here, only that there are things there to look at — things lavishly imbued with thingness. Van Allsburg’s illustrations are seldom crowded, but there is a palpable graphic lushness that draws the eye to every object. The stage is set: anything might happen.

* * *

But these close observations came later — much later, when I’d seen more of the artist’s work and had a better sense of his particular mastery. My very first impression of The Garden of Abdul Gasazi was simple: a picture book in black and white! Was it possible anymore, in the wild flowering of the genre at the time, that a big and fabled publishing house like Houghton Mifflin would still undertake such a thing? Apparently, yes. And flooding my senses was an exciting idea: were I to write a picture book, I knew just the chap to illustrate it. (No, not Chris Van Allsburg.)

I had been taken with the drawings of an artist named Ken Nutt, a.k.a. Eric Beddows, whose work was on display at a gallery where I taught Saturday art classes. His artwork was trompe l’oeil; large framed wall pieces featuring narrow spaces: shelves and shallow drawers filled with objects, many of which were toys, rendered in exquisite detail and animated by dramatic lighting, so that there were lively shadows. The work was mysterious and claustrophobic, as if these objets d’art had long since stopped being the playthings of children. And yet there was, in Ken’s art, the things of childhood.

And a lot of it was rendered in “black and white,” in pencil and graphite — vials of it, as fine as liquid, to masterfully coat a page in silvery tones.

I would write a story for Ken to illustrate, I thought, inspired by my encounter with the magician Abdul Gasazi and the magician who created him.

On the home page of Van Allsburg’s website he says, “The idea of the extraordinary happening in the context of the ordinary is what’s fascinating to me.” And that is the key to his stories. A solid little dog is turned into an equally solid duck. A supposedly boring board game lets loose a jungle’s worth of very considerable critters into a suburban house. Another such home, this one on Maple Street, achieves liftoff. And a train pulled by a hulking great steam engine comes to a stop right outside an otherwise ordinary home in order to whisk a boy away to the North Pole.

How wonderful to look back and see in Chris Van Allsburg’s very first book that a genius had landed in our midst.

From the May/June 2017 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: Humor.

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Tim Wynne-Jones About Tim Wynne-Jones

Tim Wynne-Jones received the 2011 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Fiction for his novel, Blink & Caution (Candlewick).

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