One-Minute Book Reviews

January 21, 2007

Chris Van Allsburg’s Birthday Book

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:29 pm

The creator of The Polar Express returns with a tale with his first black main characters

Probuditi! By Chris Van Allsburg. Houghton Mifflin, 32 pp., $18.95. Ages 3 and up.

By Janice Harayda

Chris Van Allsburg is widely regarded, along with Maurice Sendak, as one of America’s two greatest living creators of picture-book fiction for children. Probuditi! shows again why he deserves his reputation.

A great picture book is as economical on every level as a poem. Nothing can be added or subtracted without diminishing it. And while many author/illustrators achieve either visual or verbal economy, Van Allsburg always gives you both.

Probuditi!(pro-boo-dih-TEE) takes place in an American factory town in the early 1940s. How do we know it’s a factory town? On one page, a pair of smokestacks appears in the background. They never reappear. But in Van Allsburg’s hands, those two are enough to suggest a place and a way of life. To evoke the 1940s, Van Allsburg doesn’t pile on period details, Norman Rockwell-style, or rely on the traditional sepia tones that can have a deadening effect on a book. He uses a warmer shade, burnt sienna, as the main color for pencil-over-pastel drawings rendered with a pointillist’s hand. This unusual tone sets the book in the past but makes it look fresh, not freeze-dried.

Van Allsburg applies his distinctive technique to a brisk and witty story that has his first black main characters. As a birthday treat, Calvin gets to see a theatrical performance by the hypnotist Lomax the Magnificent, who shouts “Probuditi!” (Serbo-Croatian for “Awake!”) to bring his female assistant out of a trance. Later Calvin tries to hypnotize his younger sister, Trudy, and to turn her into a dog. Trudy obligingly begins barking and attempting to scratch her ear with her foot. Calvin is afraid he’s headed for “big trouble” with his mother if he can’t return his sister to normal. But is Trudy hypnotized or just pretending? Some children may feel unsure. But one measure of a great book is that the more often you return to it, the more you see. And on subsequent readings children may see more than during their first encounter with Probuditi!. If they need help solving the mystery, the dust jacket of this book says, tellingly, that this is a tale “about getting even.”

Best line/picture:All. Children may especially enjoy spotting the china tea pot shaped like a bull terrier, a dog that returns in each of Van Allsburg’s books.

Worst line/picture: None. Some parents have objected to the pictures of a black girl acting like a dog. See the “Reader Reviews” section of the listing for Probuditi! for a discussion of this issue.

Recommended … without reservations.

Furthermore:Van Allsburg won Caldecott Medals for The Polar Express and Jumanji and a Caldecott Honor citation for The Garden of Abdul Gasazi. He has also written written 12 other picture books, including an alphabet book, The Z Was Zapped: A Play in 26 Acts.

Published: October 2007

Links: Van Allsburg’s Web site,, is elegant but harder to use than many that attract young children. The text on some pages scrolls too fast to read easily, and I couldn’t slow it down. Van Allsburg’s page on the Houghton Mifflin site,, is easier to use and, in some ways, just as helpful.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
One-Minute Book Reviews is an independent literary blog created by Janice Harayda, who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of The Plain Dealer of Cleveland, and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. She reviews one or more books for children or teenagers every Saturday on the Children’s Corner on this site. The review of Probuditi! was originally scheduled to appear Saturday. To avoid missing reviews of children’s books, please bookmark

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