Traditional Thursday: Just a Dream

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Published in 1990, Chris van Allsburg’s Just a Dream is a traditional classic that has gained significant value in recent years. When it was originally written, it was a warning call of what could transpire in the world around us. Now, van Allsburg’s tale is becoming a haunting reality. Traffic, smog, and garbage actually threaten the natural world, and the innocent days of playing in green backyards under a bright blue sky are under attack. A revisit to Just a Dream provides an extremely valuable teaching opportunity in looking back at the predictions made then in comparison to the circumstances that surround the environment today.

The book follows a young boy named Walter through a night of wild dreams. Initially, Walter is unconcerned about the state of the environment. He is complacent and uninterested when it comes to littering and recycling, and openly mocks peers that show compassion to the natural world. Through pop culture and media, Walter has a very clean vision of what the future looks like. He imagines the future to be technologically advanced, with the usual personal flying vehicles and robots that do everything for us. But the harsh reality of what the future we are hurtling towards might look like is much different. Walter is taken to a series of scenes of the future in his bed that night, but this future is not at all what he expected. It is bleak, overrun by trash, coated in smog, commercialized to the extreme, overexploited, crowded, and suffering. Walter is taken aback by what he sees, and quickly realizes how valuable the environment is.

Chris van Allsburg writes simply and wonderfully in Just a Dream, making this book accessible and appropriate for a wide range of age groups. The format of the book alternates between full, two-paged illustrations and blank all text pages, allowing readers to focus on the images and the text separately. The text is usually delayed as well, with the image coming first, followed by the text describing the image on the next page. This allows for several unique and valuable learning experiences to transpire. First, children can use illustrations to form their own mental image of the action taking place. They can absorb every detail of van Allsburg masterfully created images without having to focus on text or have their personal interpretations and findings taken away from them. Secondly, van Allsburg’s writing style allows snapshots to become dynamic action. The beginning scene is shown, and then by following a still image with a paragraph, the characters come to life, move on from that point in time and engage with one another. This is a very important transitionary skill for readers moving away from picture dominant books and into more textually dominated books. The starting illustration is given, but the subsequent action is played out in the reader’s head. And lastly, this writing style flows well and flows with consistent rhythm, keeping young readers easily engaged and invested in the story.

van Allsburg is no stranger to illustrations, already a two time Caldecott winner at the time this book was written, and his pictures in Just a Dream are as good as any. He specifically has color play a very large role in his depictions, with nearly all of the future being drawn with a monochrome palette. The colors are muted and shaded to give off very sickly feelings, lots of harsh rust browns, and sickly green yellows. This not only sets the tone of the future as polluted and bleak, but also helps distinguish dream from reality. The real world is depicted more colorfully than the dreams, helping to contextualize the images. However, even reality has subtle color scheme changes, with the pre-dream colors being ever so slightly more muted, and the contrast being less exaggerated making the images seem dim and dull. After Walter’s dream the images are vibrant and hopeful, concluding with an alternative future, where society made the necessary changes and the world is healthy and beautiful again. This difference in depictions of the future help solidify the point that van Allsburg is making in an unspoken way that well-drawn images tend to do. The difference in realities also subtly conveys that the current situation in 1990 is already progressing towards a bleak future. The images are also extremely lifelike and real. They convey the possibility of becoming reality, and this flows simply from Chris van Allsburg being very good at illustrating.

Chris van Allsburg has put together a fantastic book to teach about the importance of environment conservation and how our future is directly impacted by the way humanity treats the world. He makes the condition of the environment a personal issue, showing how individual lives will be affected by the attitude that we hold when approaching nature today. He correctly predicts that the future will hold many of the problems that society currently faces today, problems that are direct results of the apathetic attitude held by Walter and by a majority of people across the globe. Through an entertaining and educational writing style, van Allsburg engages his audience and develops reading skills. He is able to drive his point home without being preachy and overbearing. These techniques matched up with thoughtfully designed illustrations cement this book as a traditional classic. What van Allsburg hopes to accomplish with this narrative is simply a small shift in attitude. A minor adjustment in outlook. But that small adjustment, if made by many, could completely change the future. Now looking back, we can ask if we made that adjustment. And if we didn’t, is there still time?

 

Nelson Eiselstein

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