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Sunday 20 November 2011

The Garden of Abdul Gasazi: What are you doing with Alan's hat?

The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, by Chris Van Allsburg
Houghton Mifflin Company, 1979
Caldecott Honor Medal, 1980

Click on the cover to listen to the way we read The Garden of Abdul Gasazi

The Garden of Abdul Gasazi was the first book published by Chris Van Allsburg (author of Jumanji and The Polar Express, among many other books). It is an eerie adventure about responsibility, guilt, magic and reality, that attracted my son immediately and both his parents more gradually but just as intensely.

The Story
One day, little Alan Mitz's neighbour, Miss Hester, entrusts him with a mission: to look after her horribly behaved dog for the day and give him his afternoon walk. Alan takes his job very seriously and spends all morning heroically making sure Fritz doesn't bite the furniture. He wins the battle and finally they both fall asleep, exhausted. Before dropping off, he makes well sure he has his hat, Fritz´s favourite thing to chew, safely tucked under his shirt.

An hour later, Fritz wakes Alan up with a bite on the nose, which the boy takes as an indication that the dog is ready for his afternoon walk. The dog barges ahead, dragging Alan behind him. Eventually they come to a doorway with a sign: ABSOLUTELY, POSITIVELY NO DOGS ALLOWED IN THIS GARDEN, signed ABDUL GASAZI, RETIRED MAGICIAN. Alan tries to walk on but the dog frees itself from his leash and runs inside. Alan follows Fritz deeper and deeper into the garden, then loses sight, and eventually comes to a clearing and sees the rather impressive house of the retired magician.

Nervous, he walks up to the door and before he has time to press the bell, Gasazi opens the door, lets him in and says 'Certainly, you may have your little Fritzie', and then leads him outside, to a gathering of ducks. One of the ducks comes forward. 'There's your Fritz', says Gasazi. Take your dear bird and please don't come again'.

Alan is shocked and confused, but when the duck tries to bite his hand, he's reassured that it must be Fritz. He starts walking home, wondering how he's going to explain things to Miss Hester, with Gasazi's laugh ringing in his ears, when a gust of wind blows his hat away and the duck flies after it.... and keeps flying and flying until it diseappers into the distance.

Poor Alan keeps walking and is soon at Miss Hester's door. He bravely knocks on the door and blurts out his story as soon as it opens, only to see Fritz racing out of the house, 'dog food on his nose'. He then feels silly for having been so gullible and promises himself he'll never be fooled like that again.

When he's gone, Fritz goes to Miss Hester and drops Alan's hat at her feet. "Why you bad dog, What are you doing with Alan's hat?", she says.

The Illustrations
Chris Van Allsburg's painstakingly, almost obsessively, detailed grey pencil illustrations in The Garden of Abdul Gasazi provide a three dimensional depth to an already delightfully atmospheric text.

Here's Alan on the sofa and Fritz under the sofa, sleeping after an exhausting morning of running about:
Check out the wallpaper and the carpet.
Allsburg dooesn't half love a pattern!

Here's Alan falling and Fritz running ahead 'barking with laughter':
It's difficult to appreciate on the screen and at this resolution, but the
grass is absolutely amazing. I love the rabbit to the right.

Here's Abdul Gasazi opening the door:
I don't know about you but I can almost touch that stone and feel it.

This is my favourite. Such fantastic character definition:
How many patterns can you spot? 

And here's Alan with Gasazi and Fritz the duckie:
Nice pattern on Gasazi's dressing gown too

These illustrations are really worth seeing on paper (Houghton Mifflin kindly makes sure it's superb quality paper, too).

The illustrations are set out classically, with one page for text and the other for illustration. The text is set inside a frame (patterned of course!):

The illustrations have so much detail, there is a lot to look at. There are paintings inside the illustrations (see the first illustration above, on top of the sofa). The white rabbit theme is present not only in the illustration where the rabbit is watching the scene where Alan is falling down the steps, but also in the illustration where Gasazi's opening the door, where we see two white stone-carved rabbits on the frame of the door (unfortunately they are cut off in the image above). But the most extraordinary detail in these illustrations is in the rendering of the textures of everything: the stone, the grass, the trees, the sky, the cloth, the flowers, the glass, the trunks of the trees.

One of the things that strikes me most about the illustrations in The Garden of Abdul Gasazi is the role of the sky in the portrayal of the passing of time. It's almost like watching clouds on one of those days where they move quickly through the sky. As the initially bright and sunny day progresses, the sky becomes darker, first because of a turn in the weather, and then because it's getting dark.

My son was attracted to The Garden of Abdul Gasazi from the very beginning (he was slightly over two when we got it). I think one of the reasons is that these illustrations really do seem like scenes you could walk right in to. I don't know what it is, but there is something incredibly solid about the stone, something incredibly soft about his sofa cushions. I didn't know this at the time, but perhaps Chris Van Allsburg's original training as a sculptor explains something about how he "does" volume. It really is remarkable.

Reading The Garden of Abdul Gasazi out loud

The first thing that struck me about this book was how much text it had for a picture book. My immediate reaction was to think the text should have been shorter, but actually the more I read it, the less I agree (see the section below on "What we like about The Garden of Abdul Gasazi" for more on this point). It's nice to read slightly longer things out loud (and kids, even very young ones, like it too).

So it's a longer, quiet read, sort of book. Reading it aloud is also different, a bit more like reading a short story. It has no rhyme, no repetition, no classic read-aloud props and yet, it works wonderfully well. In this book, I think one of the things about the text that holds the listener's attention is the effectively sparse use of pieces of dialogue that work as anchors to hang on to. This, combined with the terriffically atmospheric illustrations (it may have more text than your average picture book, but the illustrations are certainly at least half of it), is able to capture the attention of any kid who's in the mood for a mysterious adventure.

Whenever we read it, my son squeals with delight when Fritz bites Alan's nose, expresses concern when the dog runs off into the forbidden garden, giggles at the idea of a dog "barking with laughter" and gives it a try himself, goes all quiet when Alan is searching for Fritz, shares Alan's awe at Gasazi's house, goes quiet again when Gasazi appears, is really fascinated at the thought that Fritz might have become a duck, shouts out No! when the duck-Fritz flies off with Alan's hat and then goes quiet again until the end, when he shares Miss Hester's "Bad dog!".

What we like about The Garden of Abdul Gasazi

First, it has a wonderful name. The name Abdul Gasazi enters your mind and never leaves.

I like that it has quite a lot of text. I think that the current trend in picture books to 'keep it under five hundred words' has no real reason for being. There are some absolutely wonderful picture books with less than 500 words, and it takes great talent to write them, but there's nothing wrong with a few more words -and it takes no less talent to write them-. One of the things that this book does so well -develop its characters- might have required those extra words. And good job Chris Van Allsburg was allowed to use them.

I also really like how it touches on the feeling of responsibility and fear of failing at a grown up job (Alan's parents are missing in the story) and how, right up until the end -when we are told that Alan promised himself he'd never be fooled like that again and told himself he was too old to believe in magic-, it plays with the possibility of the entire story being either a nightmare or even perhaps a fib that Alan makes up to cover up for the fact that he dropped off and Fritz wandered off.

It really grew on me, this one.

P.S. This is actually the only Chris Van Allsburg we have read. I've just discovered that apparently Fritz, the little doggie here, is mysteriously hidden in all his books. Must look out for him!

P.P.S. Chris Van Allsburg's website is pretty cool too.

(c) of all the illustrations in this post, Chris Van Allsburg, 1979.


  1. A new to me book, but I shall hunt it down now!

  2. Didn't know the book or the author either - I'll keep my eyes peeled. :-)

  3. It's funny that despite two of his books having been made into successful films (Jumanji and The Polar Express) the knowledge that they are based on books by Chris Van Allsburg somehow doesn't seem to have got through. Anyway, I recommend, YES!

  4. Oh, I LOVE the Polar Express - apparently more so than my kids, who looked at me with a worried expression when I declared my intention to watch it AGAIN this Xmas.

  5. By the way, American illustrators are so different, aren't they?

  6. Haha, Gemma. I confess I haven't actually watched Jumanji or The Polar Express. You've persuaded me to get The Polar Express in for Xmas ;). Yes, I know what you mean by American illustrators, although I don't know whether I could put my finger on exactly what it is. Enjoy the Polar Express again!

  7. They tend to be more realistic - sometimes a bit creepy, I find. Besitos

  8. Chris Van Allsburg's illustrations are so powerful. I'm a huge fan of The Polar Express. The book - not the move. Although, to be fair, I haven't seen the move, but the trailers gave me the hookey-spooks. I'll put this new book on my TBR list. Thank you!


  9. Thanks for your comment Ali! Great to discover you and your blog. Polar Express has been on our TBR list for a while now. It's about time!