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 Caterpillar."
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 René Magritte, Carle's vivid paper collages evoke Paul Klee's childlike wit and the color-drenched extravagance of Henri Matisse. (See accompanying interview, page 21.)
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.
Van Allsburg creates his books through a process of call and response between the images and words. "I have the picture in my imagination," he says. "Sometimes the words come to me, because I see something, and I see there may be a story somewhere that ties things together. The drawings talk back to the text."
Van Allsburg's books appeal to children and adults, but he says the only audience he thinks about while creating is himself.
"The contemplation of an audience contaminates the artistic process," he says. "It's never for anybody but me. I don't think about kids. I don't think about adults. I just think about the story. You can't use two compasses to get to your destination."
Van Allsburg, a graduate of and later a professor at the Rhode Island School of Design, recalls when his illustration students battled feelings of inferiority inflicted by the painting majors at the famous art school. The criticism was that illustrators aren't real artists because they produce work for the commercial market.
Revisions in critical thinking have broken down much of the old wall between "art" and "illustration." Artists once banished from scholarly consideration, from 19th-century salon painters to Norman Rockwell, have seen their aesthetic stock rise over the past decade.
"It all seems like art to me. I just call myself an artist," Van Allsburg says.
"I always told them," he says of his students, "William Blake was an illustrator. Even Michelangelo had to deal with a pope who acted like [an art director]. There are vast opportunities within what seem like the confining restraints of an assignment."
The Eric Carle Museum is riding the wave of these recent reassessments, finding acceptance from serious quarters in the art world.
Art historian H. Nichols B. Clark left a position as head of education at the High Museum in Atlanta to be founding director of the Carle museum. Previously, he was curator of American paintings at the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, Va., where he co-curated the first major exhibition ever to survey children's book illustration in America.
The 1960s saw tremendous change in children's books, spurred both by an expansion in federal money for libraries, which increased the market, and by the era's social changes, Mr. Clark says.
From innovative new techniques like the almost tie-dyed look of Eric Carle's collages, to stories that sometimes plumbed dark psychological territory, everything was opened up.
Van Allsburg is an inheritor of this expansion.
"He's taken the seemingly ordinary and made you feel a little squeamish," Clark observes. "He provokes a sense of wonder, mystery, and befuddlement."
Van Allsburg explains, "I like the idea of being able to stimulate feelings that are not present at the same time - the funny and the tragic, for instance. Those kind of dissonances."
Just as much of the best art for adults is rife with psychological complexities, Curley insists the same holds true for art for kids.
"Children are drawn to the unexpected," she says. "Art for children doesn't have to be simple. It doesn't have to have a happy ending. It can be full of questions and uncertainty."
• 'The Mysteries of Chris Van Allsburg' continues at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Mass., through March 13.