Whether imagining a board game gone awry in Jumanji, recalling a century-old Niagara Falls stunt in Queen of the Falls, or inspiring short story writers with ambiguous imagery in The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, Chris Van Allsburg never fails to surprise audiences. His archly titled new picture book, The Misadventures of Sweetie Pie (Clarion, Nov.), takes a close-up, unusual look at a domesticated hamster’s trials and tribulations. Dedicated to the “memory of Marmalade and Little Gray,” this unsettling book makes readers conscious of taking pets for granted, despite a liberating squirrels ex machina resolution that springs Sweetie Pie from captivity. Chris Van Allsburg spoke with PW from his home in Pride’s Crossing, Mass.
The Misadventures of Sweetie Pie seems so unlike your other books, in the way you focus on a commonplace animal and his everyday troubles.
I would agree that it’s unlike my other titles, but I like to think I can say that about each of my titles individually. I did a nonfiction book [Queen of the Falls], a while ago, and [Sweetie Pie] was the first time I played around with watercolor.
How and why, though, did you decide to create a picture book about a neglected – and, at times, abused – hamster?
The story was inspired by experiences in my own life, mainly my children’s experiences with small, furry creatures. They were eager to be the caregivers of a pet when they were young, and my wife and I went over the responsibilities that would be expected of them, and the expectations of the hamster, insofar as we could guess what those might be. Then we went out and got one.My children are conscientious and responsible kids, and they loved the animal very, very much – for a couple weeks. The hamster got abundant attention for the first two weeks, probably the right amount of attention for a couple more, and not enough attention following that. So [like Sweetie Pie in the book] the hamster got placed in the classroom – it became the classroom pet. Once again it had too much attention, but that too tapered off. We learned from the teacher that the kids were very excited with the hamster when it first arrived, but then they got bored with the hamster.
Are you recommending that children take better care of their hamsters?
I don’t know if what kids really want is a hamster. What they want is a dog. So the hamster ends up being a substitute: “Well, would you accept this?” The parents feel like the child will still have the experience of taking care of something, which is a positive thing, without the extraordinary burdens of taking care of a dog, or for that matter, a cat. That was the case with us, too, because our children were, we knew, allergic. We thought a hamster would work out. But I felt guilty that the hamster was a substitute for what they really wanted. The hamster was a plaything for them. The hamster was not a hamster – it was serving all sorts of needs. And I didn’t feel like the hamster deserved that.
Your narrative does not say exactly how Sweetie Pie feels or speak from his point of view, yet readers understand his discomfort. How did you determine your approach to an animal subject?
I know how stories like this are often laid out: You do have a small, vulnerable thing. Usually it’s a little animal, but I suppose in children’s books it could even be a plant. And what happens is, as a way of trying to impart a kind of moral or character lesson to the child, these books will show the example of the bad child, and then we’re introduced to the good child. The young reader can identify with the good child, and that will be a beneficial thing for them, and perhaps their future as a pet owner.
While I was contemplating the different kinds of unhappy things that can happen to a hamster, I realized that even if the hamster found the good child, the loving child who is not going to get tired of the hamster, the hamster’s life was still circumscribed by its status as a pet. It was still going to live in a cage, it was still going to be dependent, even on a generous child, for those little bits of time when it might interact with another living thing. And so while I was thinking about how the story might lead to the good child, I realized there was a better ending for the hamster in which it didn’t end up in a cage at all.
Although you do not give the hamster a voice, your illustrations establish a hamster’s-eye perspective. How did you go about picturing the world from Sweetie Pie’s perspective?
Just by getting small. I imagined myself the size of a hamster, being in the cage with it or something like that. The hamster doesn’t speak, so it’s important to use the illustrations to convey the physical experience of what it’s like to be in those spaces. Even though this is different than other books I’ve written, it does share an interest principally, or most closely, with Two Bad Ants. In order to tell their story, I got very small.
In Two Bad Ants, the protagonists stay behind, eating sugar grains in a kitchen, after their fellow ants march home to safety. They nearly drown in coffee, they get stuck in a sink, and they are under mortal threat in humdrum human-scale spaces.
I think it conforms to a kind of a traditional narrative, which is where you introduce your protagonist, and you subject your protagonist to misfortune or misadventure, and those experiences finally lead the character to some other place. I guess I’m describing The Odyssey. It’s an old story form, and a very useful one too, I think.
In Sweetie Pie, the hamster doesn’t choose his odyssey the way the ants do.
It was something I realized while doing it. The hamster is actually not passive at the very outset, but you only understand he’s not a particularly passive animal because he’s feisty and he resists being held by children. And following his removal, or his exit, from the pet shop, he’s kind of a victim. He’s not in a position to escape, to take charge of his own life. It appears at one point that he actually dies. When I had the idea, slightly from the hamster’s point of view, of describing the experience of him succumbing to hypothermia, I thought, “You don’t read that in a children’s book every day.”
No, you sure don’t. In your illustration, you picture Sweetie Pie covered in snow, with only his nose and ears exposed. This will make readers uneasy – it is the sort of anxious moment we often find in your work.
It is, and he lives. And, you know, it’s a children’s book – it’s a fantasy. I read a little bit about hamsters, and hamsters, in theory, could survive in a four-climate environment. But it would actually take what’s presented in the book, which is the help from squirrels. Because the hamsters would have to stay warm. They’d have to depend on the squirrels.
I’m not going to argue that this sort of interspecies bonding would ever take place. But from the beginning [when the hamster is the only one unsold at the pet store], he wonders, where did everybody go? All his friends were gone. And he figures, if he accepts this ride out of the pet shop, in the hands of a little girl, maybe he will get to rejoin his friends. Of course he doesn’t. But he does finally get, for the most part, what most animals want – the close companionship of creatures like themselves. I was trying to suggest that maybe the best friend for an animal like that is another animal.
The children in your book are not friends to Sweetie Pie, and sometimes they are outright cruel. Even the curious schoolchildren loom over the hamster in a threatening way, and one leaves the hamster on the playground in the winter. Why did you create such careless characters?
One of the things that occurred to me while I was working on it is when you place a small animal in the center of a story as a protagonist, that animal is almost always a proxy for the child reader. Peter Rabbit’s not a rabbit. Peter Rabbit is a proxy for the child who reads the book, and they imagine themselves in the rabbit’s position. And because animals are small and vulnerable, children instantly identify and empathize with them, because that’s the way they see their own status.
So I thought, one of the things about this book is that there is a small animal, and the children – like all stories featuring small animals – are invited to identify with the vulnerable creature. But then the tormenters of the small creature are children like themselves. It creates a sort of paradox in that way.
In your more explicitly dangerous or creepy books, like Queen of the Falls and Zathura, you work in a grayscale or sepia palette. Here you brighten the mood with gold, green, pink, red, and purple. How did you decide on this palette, and why did you work in watercolor this time?
I wouldn’t say the story is terribly dark, but it does have a serious message. So I was determined to do something that looked more like a conventional children’s book. I thought, how do people make conventional children’s books? Well, they use cheerful colors and they use watercolor. I thought just by choosing those materials I would be obliged or at least encouraged to make something that had a more conventional look.
Even though I always use models, there’s a way of looking at a model and presenting virtually every detail you see. But there’s another way of using a model, of doing a sketch from the information and making basically a simpler picture: flatter colors, not so much detail. I was interested in doing that. I thought the story was better served by the less grave kind of picture-making.
Ultimately I guess I was trying to make a kind of Trojan Horse. The look of the book says, “This will be a happy, heartwarming story about a small animal.” But it’s not exactly that kind of book.
How long does it take to craft a book like this one?
I may have spent a year on this – which is longer for me than usual. But that would be going in and out because I always have other projects. I was using materials I hadn’t used before, and I was kind of learning on the job. The new materials were time-consuming, and I had to throw a couple of things away. And even though it’s only 32 pages, it’s picture-full. I wanted to design the book so that it was picture-dense, without a lot of white real estate, to give it a more consistent and comprehensive visual hold.
The simple truth is, I’d do it over again now, but I’d say that about every book. I’m always kind of unhappy with things when I get done with them.
With this work complete, do you have another picture book in mind?
Actually, I’m hard at work on another project that I got sort of roped into. It’s all new too: it’s ballet sets. It happens to be The Nutcracker. One of the reasons I was so reluctant to do it was that Maurice [Sendak] did it. I liked his sets so much. And you go online and you find a hundred examples of Nutcracker designs. But it’s my hometown ballet, the Grand Rapids [Michigan] Ballet. They were so determined to have a Grand Rapids Nutcracker designed by a Grand Rapids artist, and against my better judgment I yielded. I’ve been drawing ballet sets for four or five months now, with a couple more to go. The stuff is getting painted as I finish it.
Your comments suggest that you try to avoid repetition – of stories, projects, and even art media – at all costs.
I’ve found it’s essential for me, in order to maintain my enthusiasm, to start all over every time. I can’t forget what I’ve already done and learned. But I have to do something different enough that I feel like I’m learning again. That’s what makes the work interesting to me, and that’s what makes me want to go back to the drawing table.
The Misadventures of Sweetie Pie by Chris Van Allsburg. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $18.99 Nov. ISBN 978-0-547-31582-9