Jumanji

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by Chris Van Allsburg. Picture Book. 32 pages. Grades 1-4.
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Review

cover art

This Caldecott Award winning book has been intriguing people since it first came out. For those of you unfamiliar with the plot, it's the story of a bored brother and sister, left on their own for the afternoon, who find the board game, Jumanji, under a tree in the park. The instructions, on a note attached to the box, are firm: once started, the game must be played to the finish.

When the children play the game, each adventure on the board brings the real creatures and events to life and into their home, creating danger and chaos. It isn't until Judy reaches Jumanji, the golden city at the end of the board, and yells the name that everything disappears, broken things are made whole and all is normal. The children put the game back where they found it, telling no one, only to watch children of friends of their parents who are known for not reading directions, take the game.

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Things to Talk About and Notice

  • As in any successful picture book, the illustrations are at least as important as the text, so let's look carefully. They're done in gray tones with something called Conte dust and Conte pencil and, like much of Van Allsburg's work, they have a surreal quality. He manipulates space and perspective. In the last picture, for instance, we seem to be looking down on the boys, yet we are standing at the foot of a tree. Objects and figures have a sculpted quality with some intriguing flat planes where we least expect them. Look at the figure of the guide sitting on the dollhouse. His back has a flatness to it which isn't right somehow, especially when you notice how carefully rounded the bowling pins are. And take a look at that dollhouse. Isn't it the dullest-looking one you've ever seen? It looks unfinished and certainly unplayed with. How would you make it more inviting?

  • Actually, nothing in the house is very warm, is it? Look at the bedroom where the lion chases Peter. It looks like a motel room, not a room in which someone lives and sleeps.

  • In most homes, you can tell a good deal about the people who live there, just by looking at the objects with which they surround themselves. What can you learn about the family from the home in Jumanji? Someone, probably the father, smokes a pipe and, presumably, someone reads; at least, there are books on the shelves but they look like the kind that no one reads. They live plainly: bedposts and kitchen chairs are unadorned and straight, the kitchen cabinets are plain white and unsculptured, the piano is a plain upright (made by Baldway), even the vases are as simple as possible. Only the grandfather clock has any designed beauty.

  • It's interesting to note the way Van Allsburg gives great texture and detail to some things while leaving other things almost blurry or flat. Look at the back of the children in the picture with the adults. How carefully he did Judy's hair; you can see every strand in her braids and the folds in Peter's shirt get equal attention, but look at the woman's throat. There are no lines and her pearls look flat. The flowers in the foreground are carefully sculpted and Peter and Judy's hands look very real but the man standing beside Peter has strangely flat fingers. Not letting us see the faces of the adults is a nice touch. It's the kids who are important here.

  • We probably wouldn't like the adults anyway. Van Allsburg gives several hints at the beginning that they are snobs. Speaking of hints, did you get the foreshadowing on the second page?

  • Before we concentrate on the text, however, you'll want to look for Fritz, the English bull terrier that Van Allsburg puts in all his books. Can you find him here?

  • As in many books dealing with fantastic adventures, there's a hint here that it may have all been a dream. After all, the children are asleep when the adults arrive, and they don't believe the children's adventure, but what about the game that's being carried off by Daniel and Walter?
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Activities

  • Van Allsburg credits many artists with providing him with inspiration including Edward Hopper. Look at some of Hopper's paintings. Notice the way he also shows figures frozen in time with unusual perspectives.

  • Jumanji is an intriguing book which can lead to a slew of activities. Because the adventure will surely be different and, probably, more dangerous for Danny and Walter than it was for Peter and Judy, we can brainstorm for plot and then write the sequel. What if the game had different squares? For art, design a board game which, if brought to life, would be very different for the players. You'll have to call it something different, of course. The magic word "Jumanji" will only work with that game. What will yours be?

  • Stay with "what if" and imagine that the children did not finish the game. What if they were left with the problems created: two feet of water in the house, lions, pythons and monkeys, not to mention the volcano. Devise solutions to each problem other than finishing the game. And what if six kids had played the game? What's on the other squares that would come to life?

  • Is this book like any movies you've seen. What about the Indiana Jones movies? In a way they're all on quests. The children must get to the end of the game. What are Indiana Jones' quests. Can you find quests in other books, television shows and movies?

  • Brainstorm for ways in which board games are better than, and not as good as, video games. Bring in your favorite board game and have one lunch hour or recess where everybody plays.

  • Let's end with music; closing themes are good, but let's find a theme from classical or pop music for each of the events on the game board or for the book as a whole. Play your theme and we'll guess which animal or event you meant it to accompany. What about music for the other Van Allsburg books. And what about his Swan Lake? But that's another story.
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Related Books

  • Look at some other Chris Van Allsburg books. In The Garden of Abdul Gasazi (Houghton, 1979 ISBN 0-395-27804-X) and The Wreck of the Zephyr (Houghton, 1983 ISBN 0-395-33075-0), he uses the same idea of physical evidence left behind when, otherwise, you would be sure it had been a dream: there's the hat in "Garden" and the man's limp in "Wreck".

  • Compare the style and plot of the above books with Jumanji as well as the rest of Van Allsburg's works such as Ben's Dream (Houghton, 1982 ISBN 0-395-32084-4), , The Mysteries of Harris Burdick (Houghton, 1984 ISBN 0-395-35393-9), Polar Express (Houghton, 1985 ISBN 0-395-38949-6), The Stranger (Houghton, 1986 ISBN 0-395-42331-7), Two Bad Ants (Houghton, 0-395-48668-8), The Z Was Zapped (Houghton, 1987 ISBN 0-395-44612-0). Can you find Fritz in them?

  • Look for other books in which games are pivotal to the plot. In The Shrinking of Treehorn, by Florence Parry Heide (Dell, 1979 ISBN 0-8234-0189-8), Treehorn is shrinking because of a board game. Compare Treehorn's dilemma to that of Peter and Judy. And, by the way, how different those names are. What, if any, effect does the name of a character have on the plot?

  • Other games in books include the checker games in Sid Fleischman and Peter Sis's Scarebird (Greenwillow, 1988 ISBN 0-688-07318-2) and in Meanwhile Back at the Ranch by Trinka H. Noble and Tony Ross (Dial, 1987 ISBN 0-8037-0354-6). The role of the game in these books is different than that in "Treehorn" and Jumanji, however, although they are all used to relieve boredom.

  • Being bored occurs in many books: Bored, Nothing to Do by Peter Spier (Doubleday, 1978 ISBN 0-385-13177-1) and The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss (Random, Beginner Books, 1966 ISBN 0-394-90001-4), but the similarity to Jumanji doesn't stop with boredom in those books, does it?
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