The Chronicles of Harris Burdick: 14 Amazing Authors Tell the Tales, Chris Van Allsburg with an introduction by Lemony Snicket, 195 pp, RL 4

The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. Chris Van Allsburg by Chris Van Allsburg: Book CoverFor those of you who already know and love (because, to know this book IS to love it) The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chirs Van Allsburg, first published in 1984 and beloved by teachers of all grades as an indispensable collection of creativity-inducing writing prompts, please skip this first paragraph for my review of The Chronicles of Harris Burdick: 14 Amazing Authors Tell the Tales. If you have never heard of The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, then you and your little ones are in for a real treat! The Mysteries of Harris Burdick is a collection fourteen drawings, captions and short story titles and unlike any other picture book you have ever read. This collection of amuse-bouche will get your brain going, your wheels spinning and your creative juices flowing so that you will feel like you've had a full meal, or at least read a traditional thirty-two page picture book that has a beginning, middle and end as well as a plot. The Mysteries of Harris Burdick has none of these and is the better for it. While it is obvious to anyone even remotely familiar with the artwork of Van Allsburg, he nevertheless begins The Mysteries of Harris Burdick with an introduction that only adds to the mysteries within. Van Allsburg tells the reader that he first encountered the drawings of Harris Burdick while visiting Peter Wenders, an old friend who was also retired from the children's book publishing business. Wenders came by the drawings when, some thirty years earlier (we're talking mid-1950s now) a man named Harris Burdick brought samples of his work - fourteen short stories with illustrations - for Mr Wenders to consider for publication. Leaving behind a story title, an illustration and a caption from each of his fourteen stories, Burdick agreed to return with his complete portfolio the next day when Wenders expressed interest in his work. However,  Burdick never returned and Peter Wenders was never able to find out what became of him and his stories. In what I can only think of as a stroke of genius as well as tremendous a gift to the creative lives of generations of children to come, Van Allsburg writes at the end of his introduction,

When I told Peter Wenders how difficult it was to look at the drawings and their captions without imagining a story, he smiled and left the room. He returned with a dust-covered cardboard box. Inside were dozens of stories, all inspired by the Burdick drawings. They'd been written years ago by Wenders' children and their friends. 

I spent the rest of the visit reading these stories. They were remarkable, some bizarre, some funny, some downright scary. In the hope that children will be inspired by them, the Burdick drawings are reproduced here for the first time.

And indeed, the Burdick drawings have inspired hundreds of thousands of children and adults (there is even a website, Who is Harris Burdick? where you can read stories submitted by readers and submit your own, view animated shorts based on the illustrations, listen to songs inspired by the titles of the stories and participate in contests based on the book) to imagine the stories behind the book. In 1993 Stephen King's story inspired by the last illustration in the book, "The House on Maple Street," was included in his book Nightmares & Dreamscapes and can be found as the last story in The Chronicles of Harris Burdick: 14 Amazing Authors Tell the Tales. If you haven't ever seen The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, I'm not going to be the one to show you any of the interior art and diminish even an iota of the magic of it. All I have to say, and this goes for parents and adults without children, buy this book. Now. If you have even the tiniest creative bone in your body, you will thank me and Mr Van Allsburg for this gem. Think of the party games you can play with this book and long car rides that can be lightened by making up stories to go with the pictures. The possibilities are endless, well, as endless as your creativity.

Review of
The Chronicles of Harris Burdick: 
14 Amazing Authors Tell the Tales

Lemony Snicket's introduction put to rest any worries I had about how the publication of stories by various well known authors would affect the way readers new to the book might approach the original story starts in The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. The editors of The Chronicles of Harris Burdick: 14 Amazing Authors Tell the Tales could not have picked a better author to keep the air of mystery and the spark of excitement alive with this new version of an old book. With his flair for enigmas, passion for secrecy and ability to see conspiracies in everything, Lemony Snicket perpetuates the mysteries of Harris Burdick, the man, while also weaving an interesting story around the involvement of the fourteen authors in this book. And, Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket) has a true gift for humor which means that the introduction both posits a possible explanation for the disappearance of Burdick and the appearance of these stories while also placing a tongue pretty firmly in cheek and eliciting a few good laughs. Also, I have to pause here to say that the publisher of this book, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, clearly recognizes the importance of The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. With The Chronicles of Harris Burdick: 14 Amazing Authors Tell the Tales they have created a book with gorgeous production values that both honors and enhances the original. A warm sepia tone is used throughout the book, giving it an antique feel and each illustration is printed on extra-thick paper, doing justice (and then some) to the originals. Van Allsburg's original introduction to The Mysteries of Harris Burdick is included at the end of the book, right before the wonderful "About the Authors" section, which reproduces smaller versions of the illustrations to go with the brief biographies.

Except for Stephen King, the other authors...

Oh, ok, I'll list them and all their impressive credentials:  Tabitha King, Jon Scieszka, Sherman Alexie, Gregory Maguire, Cory Doctorow, Jules Feiffer, Linda Sue Park, Walter Dean Myers, Lois Lowry, Kate DiCamillo, MT Anderson, Louis Sachar, Chris Van Allsburg and Stephen King. This list includes (prepare for your jaw to drop now) four Newbery winners, two National Book Award winners, one Michael L Printz award winner, one Academy Award winner (yes!), one former National Children's Laureate, one Caldecott winner (two gold, one silver) and one Caldecott honor winner. Seriously!

...all incorporate the caption somewhere into the story and it is a treat to read along wondering where (and how) it will pop up. My favorite had to be in MT Anderson's story, Just Deserts. The picture of a a woman about to cut into a glowing pumpkin, the caption reading, "She lowered the knife and it grew even brighter" became a grammar lesson for me based on a red herring thrown my way. I know that the word "dessert" is spelled with a double "s" and the other word for a vast, sandy expanse has only one "s," however, that didn't stop me from thinking of dessert and pumpkin pie every time I looked at the picture for "Just Deserts." A customer and I were poring over  The Mysteries of Harris Burdick one day and she insisted the title must be a typo, that Van Allsburg must have meant it to be "desserts." Sure that neither a huge publisher like HMH nor a man like Chris Van Allburg would make a mistake like that, I looked up the phrase on line. There I learned that "deserts" is a plural of "desert," which means "that which one deserves," although the word is rarely used in this way outside of this phrase. To make a long story short (too late...) Anderson works the phrase/word into his story both ways and you just might squeak with delight when you see how. Also, Anderson's story is really darn creepy in a Twilight Zone sort of way, as is Stephen King's.

Most of the story starts in The Mysteries of Harris Burdick have a suspenseful, creepy feel to them and the authors run with this, making this collection of stories good for older kids and not necessarily great bedtime reading for littler ones, unless they like this kind of stuff. The author who best, in my opinion, maintains a true younger reader sensibility with her story is Newbery winner Linda Sue Park. Her story, The Harp, is superb. By the end of the seventeen pages I felt like I had read a whole book. Park's characters, parallel story lines and descriptions are fabulous. Walter Dean Myers' story, Mr Linden's Library, is another of my favorites, although a bit higher on the spooky-scale. There a lot of stories you could tell about a book with vines growing out of it, and in his creation of the character of Mr Linden he takes the story in an enchanting direction. Sherman Alexie's rendition of A Strange Day in July takes the prize for creepy characters and an even creepier interpretation of the caption and still has my mind whirling. While I loved Lois Lowry's story behind a nun floating through a cathedral in a wooden chair immensely, as a bookseller and kid's book lover, and as an adult, Jules Feiffer's story behind Uninvited Guests was the really treat in this bursting literary goodie bag for me. Feiffer's creation of Henry, the aging picture book author and artist who, over time, has begun to live entirely in a world populated by his creations, all of whom are talking and singing animals, is both hilarious and haunting.

The more I read  The Chronicles of Harris Burdick: 14 Amazing Authors Tell the Tales, the more I love it. I have no doubt that, over time, I will come to cherish  The Chronicles of Harris Burdick: 14 Amazing Authors Tell the Tales as much as I do the source of inspiration, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick.

The trailer for The Chronicles of Harris Burdick: 14 Amazing Authors Tell the Tales stars Lemony Snicket (well, his voice and his hands) as well as really great cameos by some of the authors included in the book. Definitely worth a watch. For other great reviews of  The Chronicles of Harris Burdick: 14 Amazing Authors Tell the Tales, check out children's book historian Leonard S Marcus' thoughts in the New York Times Sunday Book Review and Travis over at 100 Scope Notes have some great things to say.

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