Middle Grade Monday: The Chronicles of Harris Burdick


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When I first came across THE CHRONICLES OF HARRIS BURDICK  in an elementary school library, I knew I had to get a copy of my own. You may not think you know who the mysterious “Harris Burdick” is – – but I’ll bet you’ve seen some of this artwork before (which is really the work of award-winning author/illustrator Chris Van Allsburg of Polar Express and Jumanji fame).

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In 1984, Van Allsberg published a book called The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. The “gimmick” around the book was that a mysterious author-illustrator dropped off 14 black-and-white drawings, each from a different picture book he had written, at a fictional editor’s house. He left with a promise to deliver the complete manuscripts if the editor chose to buy the books, but, as the story goes, Burdick was never seen again. The 14 illustrations were all that remained of his supposed books and readers were challenged to imagine their own stories based on the images in the book.

Fast forward 25 years… The CHRONICLES of HARRIS BURDICK re-releases these 14 subtly surreal pieces of art and pairs each with a short story by a renowned author. The list of participating authors reads like a veritable Who’s Who of children’s literature, and upon coming across the book I’ll wager that any contemporary author immediately thinks, “I want to play, too!”

At least that’s what I said to myself.

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The list of participating authors includes Sherman Alexie, Cory Doctorow, Kate Dicamillo, Lois Lowry, Walter Dean Myers, Louis Sachar, Jon Scieszka, and yeah, you get the idea. Some of the stories landed better than others, some incorporated the illustrations more organically, but all were at least interesting. That’s the joy of a short story collection, though, isn’t it?

I think my favourite was Cory Doctorow’s piece, based on the illustration above, which deals with a young boy’s loss of his father at sea, at the same time the little guy grapples with the idea of non-linear time (and space). I was also drawn to Sherman Alexie’s story about a set of twins who pretend they have an invisible triplet sister and carry an empty dress around with them everywhere they go, insisting everyone treat the dress as a real person. It’s a fantastically dark comedy on an MG level.

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With an introduction by Lemony Snicket, you can bet it is a strange collection. The stories tend toward the dark, and even twisted, although there is nothing graphic or inappropriate here. Some of the most frightening ideas are simply left to the imagination. That said, I’d recommend this for the 10+ crowd.

What I most love about this collection, though, is the opportunity for personal interpretation of the surreal illustrations. I am looking forward to using them as jumping off points in my own classroom assignments and discussions.

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10 Comments

  1. Barbara Watson
    Feb 18, 2013

    This sounds so intriguing! Both the original gimmick and the new version. Thanks so much for word about it; I wasn’t aware of it.

    • Danika Dinsmore
      Feb 18, 2013

      when you open it, I bet at least one illustrations makes you go, “oh, yeah, I’ve seen this somewhere before.” They have a timeless quality to them.

  2. I love the collaboration between authors. And you are right on the money when you say “some of the most frightening ideas are simply left to the imagination.” That’s the best description of successful horror writing, right there.

    • Danika Dinsmore
      Feb 18, 2013

      I know, right? There were a few times I got squeamish and then realized I was making myself squeamish. The author had only written the suggestion of something horrible happening. I wonder if they were directed to do so because the collection of illustrations encourages us to use our imaginations (a definite theme in the book).

  3. Andromeda Jazmon
    Feb 18, 2013

    Wow this looks like a great one! Wonderful idea.

  4. Mark
    Feb 18, 2013

    I am definitely intrigued. I may have to hunt this book down.

    • Danika Dinsmore
      Feb 18, 2013

      I think this kind of book makes a case for the need of physical books in the world. It would not have the same affect as an ebook.

  5. 4amWriter
    Feb 20, 2013

    3rd and 4th graders in my kids’ elementary school all get to “play” along. The teachers provide the illustrations and encourage the students to write their own short stories. It’s well-received.

  6. Kim Aippersbach
    Feb 20, 2013

    I got this book for myself for Christmas. I love the images. The stories are great, but they’re just one person’s interpretation, and I love that the images remain open for anyone to play with. What a great thing to use in the classroom. (I would give the stories to older kids–high school, even, because they would have the critical capacity to say, “I see what the author chose to do with this inspiration,” rather than, “this is the story that goes with this picture.”)

  7. Danika Dinsmore
    Feb 21, 2013

    Kate and Kim – I think the illustrations could be used as inspiration at any age. Although, having the younger kids do their own interpretations first before revealing the author’s choice might be the way to go.

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