The Chronicles of Harris Burdick

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.


Museums are great places to discover and to hide.  In Brian Selznick’s Wonderstruck, New York’s American Museum of Natural History becomes the focus for both in two stories, fifty years apart.

Selznick uses the same style of graphics with text that he created in The Invention of Hugo Cabret;  he tells one story using only words, and the other using only illustrations.  Eventually, the two stories merge in a clever connection of two lives.

The book is extraordinarily thick, only because at least half is taken up with full-page black and white illustrations that might remind you of Chris Van Allsburg’s style in The Polar Express.  Some of the pictures overlap, but most tell the life of a young deaf girl, Rose,  who ran away from her New Jersey home to New York City in the 1920s, looking for her mother and a better life.  The text tells the story of Ben, a young deaf boy in the 1970s, running away from Gunflint Lake, Minnesota, to New York City to find his father.  The museum is central to both their lives and families, and helps them find each other.

Historical information in the book references the New York World’s Fair and the introduction of the “talkies” – the movies that changed the silent picture show with captions to sound, and inadvertently eliminated the deaf from the movie-going audience. The history of museums as collections in rooms of wonder, with accompanying illustrations, provides the transition to the modern storyline.

Although not as suspenseful as The Invention of Hugo Cabret,  Selznick’s Wonderstruck offers another children’s book that mixes history and information within a fairy tale come true – a book worth taking the time to browse through.

Read the review of The Invention of Hugo Cabret – here