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

The Sower of Tales (2001), by Rachna Gilmore

Gilmore-SowerI have recently given a guest lecture on Children’s Literature of the South Asian diaspora, and I closed with a discussion of Rachna Gilmore’s The Sower of Tales. The class I spoke to was about to begin an investigation of Salmon Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990), focusing on its metafictive elements, and Sower of Tales seemed to me to be a perfect text to launch them into the more complex metaphors that Rushdie employs.

The Sower of Tales presents a similar concept—the need for stories in our lives, the death of the imagination equated with the death of happiness—but to a younger, less intellectually mature readership. By this I do not intend to denigrate Sower of Tales; there is absolutely a place for both expressions of this theme within the corpus.

The metaphor that Sower of Tales presents is that of stories as a gift from the Sower, grown bi-weekly on plants scattered about the land. The Gatherer is responsible for choosing an appropriate “story pod” for the evening Talemeet for his or her village. The ripe pods give off a hum, and a talented Gatherer can tell from the hum what tone of story is therein contained. Our protagonist, Calantha, shows great promise as a Gatherer, but is too young yet to apprentice. Nonetheless, when tragedy strikes and new story pods no longer sprout, Calantha is chosen to make the dangerous journey to seek the Sower of Tales, to help right the imbalance in the world that has caused the blight.

When she reaches her destination, she is harrowed to find that the answers are not readily available. The Sower of Tales is losing her power, and can no longer heal herself: she needs Calantha to make another, more dangerous, journey. Calantha learns that an evil sorcerer has twisted the Essences, knotted the winds so that the new seeds that rise out of opened pods, up to the Sower of Tales, are diverted to the neighbouring kingdom. The significance of this is that in Gilmore’s fantasy world, the stories are power, as much as they are a life-force, and the source of culture and tradition.

The Healer Theora tells Calantha that “the Essence of the story pods is tied to the very fabric of our beings” (136), and the Sower of Tales, telling her how story pods first came into being, tells her:

Tales grow, with a life of their own. Words and ideas are like seeds. … the Essence of the story pods comes from the oldest and most powerful of all Essences—the life-spark, the Essence of creation itself. … And so, over time, the Essence of the tales enmeshed and interwove with all the other Essences linked to that life-spark, strengthening them, too—strengthening unity and love, joy and creativity and hope. (231-33).

The corollary is that without the story pods, the world will be blanketed in despair, like the poisoning of the Rushdie’s Sea of Stories… In the final scenes, in a flash of insight, Calantha understands:

The Plainsfolk must, they must learn to tell the tales. Tales from the story pods, yes, but more—they must also learn to tell their own tales. Mend their own hope, stoke their own strength. Oh, they must learn to tell their own tales to fuel their own joy and delight … And when the story pods returned—if the story pods returned—they must still keep telling their tales. That was how the tales would be saved. It was the only way the tales would be saved. (416)

The Sower of Tales can be seen as representing the birth of an oral tradition: stories are no longer given to the people by magical beings, but now must be created by the people, for the people: humanity in Gilmore’s fantasy world has now taken responsibility for its own happiness or despair, its own future narrative.