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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).
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.
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.
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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