There’s a pretty good chance that you’ve seen the cover image shown here before — though perhaps not on the cover of a book. Perhaps one of the other 13 images is more familiar to you: a bird-and-vine wallpaper, with one of the birds coming to life and peeling off the wall; a balding man in a bow-tie, brandishing a chair over a mysterious bump under the rug; a nun sitting in a chair, floating high above the floor in a cathedral while two priests look on.
In 1984, Chris Van Allsburg gave us The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. These fourteen drawings, so the story goes, were brought to a children’s book publisher by a man named Harris Burdick, along with titles and captions. Burdick promised to return the next morning with the stories to go along with the drawings … but he never did. The pictures were published “in the hope that … children will be inspired by them” to write their own stories.
I remember seeing this book as a kid in school, getting to choose a picture from the book to write a story about. Just today my daughter came home and told me that they’d written stories based on Harris Burdick’s drawings. At Wordstock, they had several of the pages from the portfolio edition (including the rare fifteenth drawing, “Young Magician”) on display, allowing kids to imagine the accompanying tales.
As it turns out, it’s not just kids who are captivated by these mysterious drawings and their tantalizing captions. Lots of people are, including a lot of really great authors. A brand-new book, The Chronicles of Harris Burdick, collects stories from fourteen authors (sadly, “Young Magician” isn’t included), each covering one of the drawings. The list of authors is amazing: Tabitha King, Jon Scieszka, Sherman Alexie, Gregory Maguire, Cory Doctorow, Jules Feiffer, Linda Sue Park, Walter Dean Myers, Lois Lowry, Kate DiCamillo, M. T. Anderson, Louis Sachar, Chris Van Allsburg, and Stephen King. In addition, there’s a new introduction by Lemony Snicket which serves to renew the mystery. (You can get a taste of his part in the video trailer for the book.)
I just finished reading the book tonight — unlike the stories your kids (or you) may have written as school exercises, most of these stories are fairly lengthy. The entire book is about 200 pages, enough to keep you occupied for several bedtimes, although I should hasten to add that some of these are pretty creepy and may keep you up at night.
I really loved reading the stories, but I have mixed feelings about the book as a children’s book. Here’s the thing: one of the best parts of the original book is that you don’t know what the actual stories are. You just have to guess at them, based on a title and a snippet of text. Here in this book are fourteen stories written by some amazing writers (or, if Lemony Snicket’s suspicions are correct, written by the actual Harris Burdick and distributed to various authors) — it’s hard not to read these as the official stories for the drawings, particularly the one written by Van Allsburg himself.
Also, while reading through the stories, there seemed to be a lot of dead parents involved. It’s like the world inhabited by Disney characters: either the mom is dead, or the dad is dead, or perhaps both of them are. Several of the kids were dealing with the loss of a parent, which is odd since it’s not explicit in any of the photos. Maybe the black-and-white drawings just inspire that sort of gloomy thought?
Not all the stories are scary, but many of them have at least some creepiness to them, which certainly fits the tone of the drawings and the overall mystery. It made for pretty good Halloween reading, sort of like reading a collection of Ray Bradbury’s stories. If you’ve got younger kids, you may want to preview the book before giving it to them — as with Bradbury’s books, a few of these may send a few shivers down your spine, and would be liable to keep my seven-year-old up at night.
I thought that some of the authors did a better job at writing stories that really fit the pictures, whereas a few of them used the caption as more of a jumping off point, with the drawing serving more as initial inspiration than actual illustration of something that happens in the tale. All of them, though, had to include the excerpt somewhere in the story exactly as originally written. It was fun to see how they would incorporate it, wondering where in the story it might show up.
Here’s my suggestion: if you’re a fan of the original and you’ve heard of at least a few of the authors, you should definitely get this book. It’s a big book, sized so that they didn’t have to shrink down the illustrations, and it’s gorgeous to look at. You may not like all of the tales in the book, but you’re sure to enjoy several of them. But get your kids the original (or the portfolio) and don’t let them read this until they’re a little older — mostly because you don’t want to take away their chance of discovering the stories they have inside them before they read these.
Disclosure: Houghton Mifflin provided a review copy for GeekDad.