Van Allsburg was born in East Grand Rapids, Michigan, the second child of Richard and Doris Christianen Van Allsburg. Van Allsburg's older sister was born in 1949. When Chris was born, his family lived in an old farm house. His family then moved to a new house at the edge of Grand Rapids when Chris was three years old. His new house was located close enough to his elementary school that he could walk there for class. His family later moved again to East Grand Rapids. He attended middle school and high school at East Grand Rapids. Van Allsburg attended the College of Architecture and Design at the University of Michigan, which at that time included the art school. He majored in sculpture, learning bronze casting, wood carving, resin molding, and other techniques. He graduated from the University of Michigan in 1972 and continued his education at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), graduating with a master's degree in sculpture in 1975. After graduation, Van Allsburg set up a sculpture studio.
While Van Allsburg focused on sculpture, he struggled for time in the studio and began to sketch his ideas at home. His wife thought that his drawings of his ideas would make good illustrations for children's books. After his wife showed his pictures to a children's book editor, he wrote his first book, The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, in 1979.
Chris Van Allsburg lives in Providence, Rhode Island with Lisa Van Allsburg, his wife of 40 years. They have two daughters, Sophia and Anna. Van Allsburg converted to Judaism, his spouse's faith.
Van Allsburg has written and illustrated about twenty books. His art has also been featured on the covers of an edition of C. S. Lewis's series The Chronicles of Narnia, published by HarperCollins in 1994, as well as in three children's books written by Mark Helprin.
His books often depict fantastic, uncontrolled events and utilize sometimes brutal irony. Van Allsburg breaks out of the comfortable world of children literature to explore the darker side of human nature. For example, his book The Sweetest Fig is about a selfish man who is suddenly given the opportunity to make his wildest dreams come true. His greed is eventually his downfall. This is not an unusual moral for a story in children books, but Van Allsburg's chilling characterization of the man brings a frightening tone to the narrative. The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, a collection of images on one side, and one sentence on the other (meant to be 'recovered pages' of longer books) continues the themes of darker undertones and was the inspiration for the short story "The House on Maple Street" by author Stephen King, in his collection Nightmares & Dreamscapes (as his author's note expands upon). The Wretched Stone, in which a ship's crew is mesmerized and corrupted by the titular rock, is an allegorical tale about the negative impact of television.
Other literary themes include dreams, the environment, and items with lives of their own (like the board games in Jumanji and Zathura, two books which are almost the same story, with the only difference being the theme of the board game and the events which are caused by playing).
Many books feature Fritz, a Bull Terrier that is based on a real-life dog owned by Chris Van Allsburg's brother-in-law. He appears in many of the books and even on his website, sometimes as a real dog, or a toy, or other things as a tribute to the dog's life.
Van Allsburg's drawings are particularly notable for their use of perspective. In many cases the illustrations are drawn from a child's eye height. This viewpoint likely appeals to children because it conveys the world as they see it. It may also appeal to adults because they may (unconsciously) perceive the world as they did when they were children.
‡ The main title of The Z Was Zapped, as cataloged by the Library of Congress, is The alphabet theatre proudly presents the Z was zapped : a play in twenty-six acts / performed by the Caslon Players ; written and directed by Chris Van Allsburg. The summary is "Depicts how A was in an avalanche, B was badly bitten, C was cut to ribbons, and the other letters of the alphabet suffered similar mishaps." 56pp (evidently two for each letter).
Three books written and illustrated by Van Allsburg have been adapted as films:Jumanji (1995), Van Allsburg as story writer
The Polar Express (2004), Van Allsburg as executive producer
Zathura: A Space Adventure (2005)
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017)