The Mysteries of Harris Burdick (1984), by Chris Van Allsburg

Van Allsburg - HarrisI was chatting with my children’s high-school librarian when the cover of this picture book caught my attention. I’ve read a few of Chris Van Allsburg’s books, and have to say have been, well… disturbed a bit by them. My squeamishness: I understand completely why he is popular, and I find his illustrations entrancing, if the narratives a bit troubling. This one looked a bit different, though: the pages were almost bereft of story. Intentionally and for good reason, it turns out.

The premise of the book is that an author/illustrator, Harris Burdick, had brought 14 sketches to show a publisher, Peter Wenders. He claimed to have a story to go with each one; the pictures were each captioned, but nothing more. Burdick left, never to return. Wenders waited for years for the mysterious Harris Burdick to return, but to no avail… “His disappearance is not the only mystery left behind,” Allsburg tells us in his introduction: “What were the stories that went with these drawings?” And so the collection was published: images and captions are all that is provided; the rest comes from the imaginations of the children who encounter the bizarre images of Harris Burdick.

The images are many of them surreal, and the captions suitably suggestive: “He threw with all his might, but the stone came skipping back”; “He had warned her about the book. Now it was too late”; “It all began when someone left the window open”… But words alone can not sufficiently describe the magic of Allsburg’s creation: the eerie images illuminate the captions rather than the other way around, and the reader’s mind immediately begins to churn, little bits of story roiling together like flotsam in Rushdie’s Sea of Stories, fished from the waters to form cohesive narratives… I really wish I taught an elementary school Language Arts class; I would love to see the marvellous tales that would come of letting a classroom of children free with this book.

Van Allsburg - Burdick page SM

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