Bookshelf talks with Chris Van Allsburg about his new picture book Probuditi! (Houghton)

This is your first book in four years, since Zathura. What have you been doing in the interim?

I have been working on some of the film projects that have been optioned; The Widow’s Broom has been optioned and so has The Sweetest Fig. So I’ve been advancing those projects, although someone once said that an option bears the same relationship to a finished film as a first kiss does to the celebration of a 50th anniversary.

It was the case for a number of years that I was doing a book a year, but that was back when I was part-time teaching—and since 1991 I’ve been a parent, so that cuts into the time!

You often choose a limited palette (as in Jumanji and Zathura) over a broader range of color (as in The Wreck of the Zephyr and The Stranger). In your new book, Probuditi!, your illustrations are done in sepia brown with olive overtones on creamy paper. Can you tell us about the media you use for these earth-tone illustrations?

The materials are a combination of pastel and pencil, in this case three earth tones with slightly different temperatures: a dark brown, a middle brown, and finally a light brown that is kind of neutral.

I can’t always say why certain materials suggest themselves to me for a book. But generally for landscapes I think of color, because the action takes place outside and it can indicate the weather and time of day. This story [Probuditi!] takes place both inside and outside, and the other thing is that it takes place around 60 years ago. Now I know it’s kind of a cliché in the graphic sense to use sepia browns, but nonetheless, I thought that brownish tones would set this back in time. In addition, it takes place on a warm day, and the warmer tones of the sepia show that heat.

Like almost all your picture books, Probuditi! expresses a fascination with conjurers and magic words. In this book, Calvin and his friend watch a hypnotist’s stage act, “hypnotize” Calvin’s little sister Trudy into believing she is a dog, and then forget the magic word to bring her out of the trance. Did you believe in or try hypnotism as a young person? Do you have a particular affection for this subject?

The whole idea of being mesmerized and not in control of your own actions is fascinating and a little spooky. I remember hearing about someone who’d gone to a magic act and a person in the audience had become hypnotized by observing too closely what magician was doing on stage, and thought it was spooky to lose your consciousness that way. I was a little interested and a little anxious about the idea. First there’s the anxiety of being the subject, giving control to another person, and then there’s the other side, being in control of another person.

Aren’t you going to ask about the word?

I figured “probuditi” was a word like “jumanji” or “zathura”—your audience expects neologisms from you.

I was wondering what a stage hypnotist might say in order to bring his subjects back to the real world. It means “wake up,” in Serbo-Croatian—that’s what you would say to arouse your subjects. In fact the conjugation is “awake yourself,” so he’d probably say “probuditi-se.” And actually, the emphasis is on the “B-U,” it’s “proBUditi,” but when the kids in the book are struggling to remember, it’s clear they’ve heard it differently because they mispronounce it.

I thought, once I had the magician’s name, Lomax, that he would come from a strange Middle European country. So I started looking up the word “awaken” in different languages. In this easy Googling Internet world, that’s all you gotta do. And the most amusing and phonetically silly word seemed “probuditi.” (Actually, I asked a Serbo-Croatian-speaking friend if someone from that area might have had the name Lomax, and the answer was no. So Lomax was his stage name, and he probably had a different name before that!)

After a hot, weary day of trying to remember the magic word and silence Trudy’s barking (and after having his ice-cream cone eaten in three bites by the “puppy”), Calvin learns that Trudy has tricked him all along. Why did you let Trudy reveal her game to readers?

I always contemplated it as a story about getting even. You think, well, the inciting event is the hypnotism of Trudy. But the true inciting event happens on the very first page, when Calvin deposits a spider in his sister’s bed before she wakes up. That cruelty, one of thousands of events that the brother probably does to his little sister, gets things started. You think, she’s so little, how can she get even with her older brother? So the story is not simply about her apparently being hypnotized and making her brother jump through these hoops. It’s about her getting even on a day that starts with his misdeed and ends with his, I guess, punishment. [Calvin is sent to his room and gets a peanut butter sandwich for dinner, rather than his birthday spaghetti and cake that Trudy gets to enjoy.]

When we reread the book, we see the glazed look in Trudy’s eyes but know she is scheming.

That to me is satisfying—when a picture book actually ends up having greater meaning than simply illustrating what the text says. As you reread, you look at it with a completely different eye.

This is your first picture book featuring African-American characters. What made you decide to create black siblings as your protagonists this time around?

Part of the motivation to expand the dramatis personae of my work was simply an interest in stretching myself as an artist, drawing different kinds of faces. I also wanted to make it more like the real world. I was out traveling, related to The Polar Express, and I went to a lot of schools. I hadn’t gone to schools for so long, and I saw how diverse the classes are. It struck me that there are so many different kinds of kids out there in schools, and my books hadn’t represented that. It seemed like an oversight on my part. So I cast this differently.

The action takes place in a quaint mid-century American town with old-fashioned vehicles. A photograph pictures Calvin and Trudy’s absent father in a serviceman’s cap, implying a 1940s context. Yet the kids encounter no racial tension, Calvin’s best friend is white, and the kids go on the bus and to the theater together without incident. Is this a revisionist history?

It did occur to me that certainly African-Americans are not underserved in picture books, but those books are almost all about specifically black experiences. Here’s a book with African-American kids in it, but in terms of the story of the book, it’s inconsequential. I also remember reading to my daughters, who were most interested in books that had little girls in them, and little girls who looked like them were even better.

My publisher brought it up while I was working on it, and thought there was something political about it. I know it can sound like calculation and pc-ish, but that was furthest from my mind. I simply thought, why not, given my audience. There was nothing more to it than that.

This is a book, then, in which you empower the youngest child. Was this tongue-in-cheek commentary, in which Trudy gets the last laugh?

This struck me as a tiny bit like the first book I did [The Garden of Abdul Gasazi], in which a magician leads a boy to believe that great magic has taken place, but maybe not—and at the end, it stays “maybe not.” [Abdul Gasazi] is about a magician’s cleverness. In this book it’s basically the same thing, but at the end we find out that the “magic” is the cleverness of the child. She is actually the magician in the story. She not only gets the last laugh, she also gets his birthday dinner!