The way I heard about The Chronicles of Harris Burdick was this: standing in the Harvard University Bookstore and seeing that Lois Lowry, Chris van Allsburg, and Roger Sutton were going to be at the Brattle Theatre talking about their new publication.
To which I responded:
And then I bought a ticket.
I was absolutely shocked that the theatre wasn’t full on the night that they spoke. Not just because of the speakers, but because of the collection that was under discussion. As a bit of background, in 1984 a book was published called The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. It was a children’s picture book, and contained a series of fourteen pictures presented without accompanying stories. Instead, each image was given a title and a single line of descriptive text. The images seem completely unrelated and without explanation, which has allowed for their use as creative writing prompts in schools because of the idea that students can come up with the “what happens next” or “what happened before” or “how did we get here.” The illustrations follow Chris Van Allsburg’s distinctive style, although an editor’s note insists that the fictional Burdick delivered them as “samples,” which helps to explain their disconnection from one another. Van Allsburg very adamantly repeated this story about the “found” illustrations at the talk, and watching an artist separate himself from his own work through use of a fictional story was really fascinating. It’s different in real life. It’s different when it doesn’t happen through an editor’s note.
This new publication, the one Lowry and Van Allsburg were there to talk about, takes the fourteen illustrations from The Mysteries of Harris Burdick and provides their possible stories. The stories tend to run around the same length (at the talk, Lois Lowry pointed out that she was one of the few authors to hit the word length on the nose), although some run longer or shorter than others. The physical book itself is a beautiful object, and is spatially the same size as a children’s picture book to keep the illustrations in tact. The short stories take their title from the title of the illustration, and most integrate the single line of text into the short story.
The contributors themselves are really the cream of the crop of authors writing for children, adolescents, and young adults. Chris Van Allsburg and Lois Lowry are joined by Sherman Alexie, M.T. Anderson, Kate DiCamillo, Cory Doctorow, Jules Feiffer, Stephen King, Tabatha King, Jon Scieszka, Louis Sachar, Linda Sue Park, Gregory Maguire, and Walter Dean Myers. The book itself is introduced by none other than Lemony Snicket, who makes the mystery of Harris Burdick believable for readers going into this new collection. Indeed, he introduces these stories without subsisting that they are the official versions. For everyone who will still use these illustrations as a jumping off point for a creative writing project, Snicket has ensured that their version may very well describe the illustration as well.
The story that stood out for me in this collection was Jules Feiffer’s “Uninvited Guests.” I almost feel like I don’t want to say that much about it, because discovering it amongst the others was my favorite moment reading this collection. I will say that the illustration that it accompanies shows a miniature door in the wall, and that Feiffer has invented a children’s author named Henry to navigate the reader through the story.
Aside from Feiffer’s, the reprint of Stephen King’s “The House on Maple Street” made for a strong end to the collection, while Sherman Alexie’s “A Strange Day in July” was another highlight. Also: M.T. Anderson’s “Just Desert.” The story ends with a personal note to the reader, one that shows Anderson breaking through the wall of reader/writer just as Allsburg broke the wall between artist/reader when he insisted that he was not the author of The Mysteries of Harris Burdick.
So. I still can’t believe that I was able to listen to Chris Van Allsburg and Lois Lowry talk for forty-five minutes about their work. And even though the talk itself strayed from the book itself (I think most of the time was spent on a discussion of e-books and Kindles), watching Van Allsburg play the part of “not-the-artist” was so fascinating that I feel lucky that I was there at all. And between Jules Feiffer and Lemony Snicket, this really isn’t a book to be missed.