THE FIRST THING that needs to be said about this book is that, as in Chris Van Allsburg's first book, The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, its pictures are astonishing. With each new page you find yourself exclaiming over their polish, their superbly accomplished rendering, and if, like me, you know a little about the medium -- Conte -- you wonder how in the world Van Allsburg has managed to keep it so clean and precise, right down to the high glaze on vases and lamp bases. And then, after that, you are struck with the great fun he has had with what can best be called "camera angles" -- you imagine him setting up scaffolding, climbing all over it to find the most surprising point of view, and then bringing the audience up -- or down -- with him to see rooms and furniture and people in a whole new way.
He is not concerned consistently with textures. A lion's hide, a rhinoceros' skin, walls, floors, even the upholstery of chairs are the same, all densely smooth -- which makes a page of hairy monkeys or his glossy vases conspicuous. Light, however, is important throughout, as it must be in black-and-white pictures, and contrasts are everywhere strong and effective. But it is not a cheery sunlight; it is cold and soft, like the light before a snowstorm, and not because of its black-and-whiteness, or the Conte pencil. This coldness must be assumed to be deliberate, and is in fact a feature, in a curious way, of the story itself.
Versions have been told often before, most familiarly in Seuss' The Cat in the Hat: something, or someone, comes into the life of a child or two left alone by adults for a few hours, and causes unbelievable havoc, all of which miraculously vanishes before the adults return. In this case the disrupting agent is a game called Jumanji which a bored Judy and Peter find under a tree in the park. There is a note taped to the box: "Free game, fun for some but not for all. P.S. Read instructions carefully." At home alone, they give the game a try -- it is a simple here-to-there by throws of the dice -- and find that its penalty squares mean what they say. For instance, "Lion attacks, move back two spaces," or "Monkeys steal food, miss one turn"; and all the animals so mentioned appear in the house, alive and threatening. There is a lost explorer -- the one comic note -- and a monsoon, too, with flooding rain. A python slithers off the mantelpiece, rhinoceroses stampede through the living room. All are banished by the game's coming to an end, peace and order are restored, the game returned to the park, and from a window Judy and Peter see a neighbor's children, who, we are told, "never read instructions," running off with it to their own house. The reader is left wondering uneasily what will become of these careless neighbor children when, for them, the game cannot end, the threats cannot be banished.
There is a lot of anxiety in Jumanji that is not present in the same way in The Cat in the Hat or its cousins, and everything in the book contributes to that mood: the cold light of the environment, the very smoothness of the textures, the odd angles, and, for me, a curious sense of silence. While, as the jacket states, "Van Allsburg has created a striking sense of color in his black-and-white illustrations," there is no sound and this makes the story eerie and dreamlike -- even, perhaps, nightmarish. Would a child find it so? That's an unanswerable question, since no one knows the anonymous "child" for whom children's books are presumably created. There is, in fact, no such Everychild but only a disparate mishmash of types, just as among adults. Some children will love Jumanji, some will be frightened by it. But most, I expect, will be dazzled by Van Allsburg's skill as an artist.
He is not particularly a writer. The story is told a little stiffly, and the game of Jumanji is impossible to play: of the 10 throws of the dice, only two allow progress. Of the eight remaining, four are "lose-a-turn," and four are retreats of one, two, or three spaces. So it is hard to see how Judy manages to win at it. The story was, as so many picture books are, created as a vehicle for the illustrations instead of the other way around. I wish we would stop doing that. For all of the highly visual nature of their universe, modern children of all ages still demand -- or at least deserve -- a strong story well told.
Adults mustn't allow themselves to be "blown away," as the current jargon has it, by beautiful pictures alone. Still, Jumanji has a stronger, more engrossing story than many in its category, in part because of the tension it creates. Read it -- don't just look at it -- before you buy it. That's the only way to find out whether the child or children in your life will find it satisfying.