• Happy birthday Joyce Sidman (Dark Emperor & Other Poems of the Night, Red Sings from Tree Tops).
  • In 781 BC, the first recorded solar eclipse is documented in China. Read The Day My Dogs Became Guys by Merrill Markoe, illustrated by Eric Brace.
  • In 1917 the first Pulitzer Prizes are awarded. Read Joseph Pulitzer and the Story of the Pulitzer Prize by Susan Zannos.
  • In 1919, the U.S. Congress approves the 19th Amendment, allowing women vote. Read You Want Women to Vote, Lizzie Stanton? by Jean Fritz, illustrated by DyAnne DeSalvo-Ryan.

June 4 has been designated Drawing Day or Pencil Day. Today we are encouraged to create art and to remember the joy we had when we first picked up a pencil and drew. If I ask myself what is the most amazing book I ever watched being published that was created by a pencil, the answer comes in a flash—Chris Van Allsburg’s now classic Jumanji.

Appearing on April 27, 1981, twenty years ago, Jumanji was Chris’s second book, following his highly successful The Garden of Abdul Gasazi. Chris was trained as a sculptor at the University of Michigan, but taught himself to draw. His superrealistic but otherworldly black-and-white illustrations came to the attention of Walter Lorraine at Houghton Mifflin, who encouraged Chris to create picture books.

Chris’s artwork immediately caught the attention of children and critics, but not always favorably. Paul Heins of the Horn Book criticized The Garden of Abdul Gasazi for being too sophisticated—Paul later apologized in print. By the time Jumanji came on the scene, adults and children alike were watching what this extraordinary newcomer to the field might do. He had wowed everyone with amazing scenes, one-point perspective, and aerial views. So realistic did his pictures appear that many children remembered his first two books as being in color rather than black and white.

Jumanji rests on an age-old premise: the parents leave home, the children start to entertain themselves, and chaos ensues. Before the parents’ return, order has to be restored. In this story, the children, Judy and Peter, pull out a board game, Jumanji, which warns them that once started it must be finished. They don’t really pay much attention to instructions and suddenly find the game come to life in their home: a lion on the piano, monkeys in the kitchen, rhinos charging into the dining room, and a snake on the mantel. All of these images from Van Allsburg’s brilliantly created fantasy world have been rendered in pencil. All show detail, shading, patterns, perspective, and drama. The rhinos burst out of the picture frame. Readers look down from the ceiling as Judy and Peter play this game with increased frenzy.

Because the drawings carry so much of the book, Chris finished them first. He wanted to make sure that every detail, every nuance was right. I still have the selling sample prepared for sales conference—only the drawings are in place because the words still needed to be finalized. Even without a line of text, you can “read” the story in the art, all of it created with the lowly pencil.

Chris won his first Caldecott for Jumanji. It became a successful movie, and it stands as an important part of the picture book canon for its inventiveness and execution. When I saw Van Allsburg’s drawings emerge, I fell in love with this book. Jumanji represented everything that I, then a young person in publishing, could hope for: something brilliant and profound being created right before my eyes. I love it just as much today—an example of the singular and idiosyncratic vision of the father of the American picture book. For all budding young artists celebrating Drawing Day, you never know what might happen when you pick up a pencil.

Here’s a page from Jumanji:

As he reached for his piece he looked up at his sister. She had a look of absolute horror on her face.

“Peter,” she whispered, “turn around very, very slowly.”

The boy turned in his chair. He couldn’t believe his eyes. Lying on the piano was a lion, staring at Peter and licking his lips.

Originally posted June 4, 2011. Updated for .

Tags: Animals, Award Winning, Caldecott, Family, Games, Imagination
Instructional materials from TeachingBooks.net for Jumanji


  1. CLM says:

    I’ve never felt the urge to try this one but maybe you have inspired me! My favorite pencil books are The Secret Pencil http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/7168615-the-secret-pencil, The Silver Pencil, and if you count Harold…

  2. I am licking my lips too, like that Van Allsburg lion.

    What a treat!

    Chris Van Allsburg is one of those rare picture book authors whose entire picture book canon (save a couple of the newest books) is now displayed in my home library.


    I don’t know exactly. It’s just this feeling that Chris Van Allsburg’s books are not just picture books. Everytime I order one, I need another.

    They are not simply good stories coupled with illustrations.

    More than that.

    They are so thought-provoking, they haunt you, they stalk you …

    You can’t escape thinking about his books, even if you want to.

    Yes, thought-provoking.

    Isn’t that a hallmark of a truly great book?

    Read Aloud Dad

  3. G.Perry says:

    This man’s work is so beautiful and so stunning, I can add little to what is already thought about him.

    The Wreck of the Zepyhr
    Polar Express
    The Mysteries of Harris Burdick
    On and on…

    I thought Jumanji as a film was amazing, though much too violent for some children. What a shame. His books are utterly gorgeous and spellbinding. They’re not only wonderful, they’re better than that. They’re perfect.

    On reading Polar Express, I became a n instant Chris Van Allsburg devotee for life.

  4. suzi w. says:

    My mother is a retired early grades elementary teacher. One day we were talking about censorship and she argued valiantly (we were both on the same side of the argument) for Z was Zapped. “Kids need words for the scary feelings they have.”

    I often forget that the Polar Express is his, since it is so different in tone, romantic. We have at least 10 copies on the shelf at our library and come Christmas season, nary a one can be found.

    I own the Widow’s Broom. What a fun story. And I still remember being a bookseller in 1995 when Bad Day at Riverbend came out, how different it was from his others, with the crazy crayon scribbles.

    I recently found one of my early pencil drawings and was amazed at how well I drew. My childhood dream was to be an illustrator.

  5. Danni says:

    Jumanji is above and beyond my absolute favorite Van Allsburg book. When I open to ANY page, the pictures seem so real. It seems impossible to me – I am not an artist at all – that the illustrations are merely pencil drawings. Are we sure they aren’t modified photographs? Digital art? I’m joking of course, but I still wonder how Van Allsburg creates these BEAUTIFUL, GORGEOUS, AMAZING, etc pictures.

    One of my favorite parts of Jumanji is the page with the rhinos stampeding towards the reader, knocking over furniture. Oh! and also the following page with the snake on the mantle who matches the pattern on the couch. And the monkeys in the kitchen eating the bananas have such gleeful, maniacal expressions!

    I love Jumanji and it’s not only the fantastic pictures – the story is so much fun. I think more people would play board games if they would come to life!

  6. Star says:

    My childhood would have been a lot less inspired if it weren’t for Van Allsburg.

  7. Shop4Books says:

    My childhood was filled with books about Katy and what Katy did and what she did next, Heidi, Brer Rabbit books and A Christmas Carol! Good post although I don’t know much about the Jumanji books – haven’t even watched the film!!!

  8. Kelly says:

    I love this book! But I first saw the movie, which I also thoroughly enjoy, and then I proceeded to get the game. I introduced on of my friends (now in her 20’s) to the game, and she told me she had never heard of it! So I promptly introduced her to the game and book!

  9. Bob Kosturko says:

    Jumanji is one of my favorite Chris Van Allsburg books. The beautiful silvery pencil drawings are a wonder to behold each time I open the book.

    I don’t recall where I read this bit of trivia, but apparently the Judy character in Jumanji was inspired by Judy Garland’s portrayal of Dorothy in the film The Wizard of Oz.

  10. Anita says:

    Bob: Thanks for that note. I didn’t know this detail.

  11. GM Hakim says:

    You can never read this book too many times. It’s beautiful, thrilling, and fun. Unfortunately, its movie version left a lot to be desired. The illustrations are vintage Van Allsburg. They leap off the page, leaving readers unsure how art can look so real. As someone who can draw stick figures and not much else, I am awed by Van Allsburg’s genius. This is a great book for kids and adults alike. I’ll be reading it to my nieces for years.

  12. Anita says:

    Yes this is a case of the book definitely being better than the movie!

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