Using picture prompts to stimulate writing is a popular device for teachers and creative writing professors, and Chris Van Allsburg’s 1984 The Mysteries of Harris Burdick has long been used to stimulate ideas. In The Chronicles of Harris Burdick, 14 famous authors attach Van Allsburg’s curious black and white pictures with their own interpretations.
Famous for The Polar Express and Jumanji, among others, Van Allsburg’s books artistically combine his vision with his own stories, but the pictures in Harris Burdick stood alone, with only mysterious captions for each picture – until “The Chronicles” appeared. With help from Gregory Maguire (author of Wicked), Kate Di Camillo (“Tales of Despereaux”), Jules Ffiefer, and other recognizable names, including Stephen King and his wife, Tabitha, the pictures now are connected to stories – some funny (“Under the Rug”), some disturbing (“Uninvited Guests”), most with strange messages to explain the picture and the caption. Think the brothers Grimm tales before they were homogenized.
Although the partnership makes for a different kind of children’s book, some stories are better than others – depending on your affinity to the authors: Lois Lowry’s “The Seven Chairs” with a girl’s talent for rising into the air and Van Allsburg’s “Oscar and Alphonse” about caterpillers who spell, and Stephen King’s “The House on Maple Street” – a house that turns into a rocket ship to save a family from an abusive step-father – my favorites.
Nevertheless, I couldn’t help thinking that the pictures had been spoiled. Like great art or poetry, if you have to explain the meaning, something gets lost in translation.
If you’re not familiar with Harris Burdick, do yourself a favor and find the original first; decide what the pictures mean to you – before you read the chronicles of others.