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Houghton Mifflin

There’s a Secret Character Creepily Hiding In ‘Jumanji’ and 11 Other Picture Books

Was it planned by the author, or the curse of an evil magician?

You’re used to Easter eggs in Marvel movies, Star Wars, Pixar movies, and even the ending of Wonder Woman 1984, but did you know that there’s a weird mystery running through nearly all of Chris Van Allsburg’s popular children’s picture books? Once you dig into this mystery, you and your kids will not be able to stop noticing it as you read through the entirety of Van Allsburg’s impressive oeuvre. In case you forgot, Van Allsburg is the guy who did The Polar Express before Tom Hanks crashed it. He’s also the author of Jumanji before the Rock and Jack Black did whatever they did in those movies.

So, what is the great Van Allsburg mystery character? Here’s a secret hiding in plain sight and how to have a little fun with your kids hunting for this hidden character. Massive spoiler alert for a ton of Van Allsburg books!

In the first of Chris Van Allsburg’s award-winning children’s books, a boy chases a white, bulls-eyed bull terrier named Fritz through the pages of Abdul Gasazi’s garden. The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, like all of Van Allsburg’s books, is a delight to read. His illustrations are spectacular and labyrinthian, and his stories bridge the gap between fantasy and reality. But there’s another reason to grab one of these books off your kid’s shelf (please tell me you own at least one) and take a second look– Fritz the dog can be found in all seventeen of Van Allsburg’s subsequent books, hidden somewhere in the illustrations.

Who is Fritz?

The story of how Fritz came to be is really the story of Winston. Van Allsburg was making his first book and needed a real-life pup to use as a model for his drawings. His brother-in-law was about to buy a golden retriever, but Van Allsburg convinced him to buy a more interesting dog instead. He agreed, bought a bull terrier puppy named Winston, and became the inspiration for Fritz in The Garden of Abdul Gasazi.

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When it came time to draw his next book, Jumanji, Fritz ended up as a small pull-toy next to the infamous board game in one illustration.  Sometime after that, Winston was hit by a car and died, and Van Allsburg decided to draw Fritz into all future books in memoriam to Winston.

Where is Fritz? (Spoilers ahead)

Fritz is tucked into Van Allsburg’s books in a variety of strange and unexpected ways. “It’s pretty trivial to me,” the author said. “I don’t start a new book thinking of it as another opportunity to hide Fritz…it’s a throwaway thing.” There’s little rhyme or reason to where Fritz is hidden, or what shape he may take, which makes it all the more fun to look. Fritz can be found in a picture hanging on a wall in Ben’s Dream, a puppet on a bedpost in Polar Express, and tucked into a flock of sheep in The Stranger. And Van Allsburg doesn’t always play fair…it may seem at first that Fritz is the main dog, Marcel, in The Sweetest Fig, but not so– the two dogs are different. The real Fritz is hiding on a wine label on a kitchen counter.

Though the dog is little more than an afterthought of each story for the author, Fritz has become a sensation for young readers. Van Allsburg says he gets hundreds of letters asking him how Fritz ended up so tiny in the garbage disposal (Two Bad Ants) or turned into a teapot (Probuditi!) These are valid questions. If we’ve learned anything from Van Allsburg’s stories, it’s that there is always another layer to uncover, another mystery that won’t leave you alone as you drift off to sleep, wondering “but could this be true?” 

So– was Fritz really included in each book because Van Allsburg wanted to honor his brother-in-law’s late dog? The author himself said in an interview that he wasn’t sure why he drew Fritz into his second book (Jumanji), when at the time Winston was still alive and well. It wasn’t until his third book, when Winston had passed, that he made the choice to commemorate him. Perhaps we need to look again; could Fritz’s reappearances have something to do with where he was first drawn…in The Garden of Abdul Gasazi?

The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, the beginning of a multi-part kids' book treasure-hunt.

The Magician Abdul Gasazi

The sign at the entrance to the garden suggests that this is not the magician’s first encounter with Fritz. For there to be a sign, it stands to reason that Fritz has been breaking into Abdul Gasazi’s garden for years and wreaking havoc. In The Garden, Gasazi tells the boy that he has changed Fritz into a duck as punishment. But by the end of the book, Fritz the dog is back, and the reader is left wondering whether the magician really did transform Fritz, or if it was all a cruel joke on the boy.

If you believe, as I do, that the magician’s powers are real, and that Fritz was turned temporarily into a duck, might the magician have turned to other forms of trickery in the past to try to teach Fritz a lesson (or simply enact his revenge?)

Gasazi would have first simply propelled Fritz out of his garden to get rid of him, not bothering to change his shape. He would have sent Fritz to stand near a fisherman in The Wreck of Zephyr, then into a forest with a boy in The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, then perhaps to Niagara Falls in Queen of the Falls.  But Fritz, we know, is a tricky terrier. He would have found his way back to Abdulaszi’s world, drawn to whatever mysteries laid within his garden. Gasazi would have gotten more frustrated and turned to greater measures of retaliation. He would have changed Fritz into a dog pull-toy (Jumanji), a dog hood ornament (Just a Dream), a kid’s crayon drawing of Fritz (Bad Day at Riverbend), and propelled him inside a tiny toy sports car (Zathura). Finally, at his wit’s end, Gasazi would have turned Fritz into a totally different animal that did not resemble Fritz the dog in any physical way: a duck.

Though the timing of when Gasazi turns Fritz into his various forms (dog in other worlds first, dog as various dog-shaped objects second, dog as duck last) does not align with the order in which Van Allsburg published his books, the theory can still hold. The timing between different worlds would vary, would it not?

If you need one last reason to believe, look no further than Van Allsburg himself. “The inclination to believe in the fantastic may strike some as a failure in logic, or gullibility,” he says, “but it’s really a gift. A world that might have Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster is clearly superior to one that definitely does not.”

A world that has a time-traveling, shape-shifting bull terrier is superior to one that does not. And, if nothing else, a world that has eighteen Van Allsburg books ready to find Fritz in is a world I’m glad definitely exists.