Over the years Chris Van Allsburg’s The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, a picture-book collection of 14 evocative drawings accompanied by a single line of text, has ignited the imaginations of young readers, many of whom have been inspired to create their own stories based on the pictures. An impressive roster of children’s authors, including Van Allsburg, do the same in a follow-up story anthology, The Chronicles of Harris Burdick: 14 Amazing Authors Tell the Tales, due from Houghton Mifflin on October 25.
In his introduction to the original picture book, which has sold more than 250,000 copies since its 1984 release, Van Allsburg purports (in keeping with the book's fictional premise) that the drawings were created by a man called Harris Burdick, who 30 years earlier dropped them off at the home of a children’s publisher, promising to return the following day with the stories he’d written based on the art. Alas, Burdick mysteriously disappeared and was never heard from again.
“Over the years, I’ve received thousands of stories that children have written about the drawings,” Van Allsburg says. “I had hoped that people would look at the pictures and appreciate their strangeness, and that a small part of the audience might feel compelled to solve their mysteries. But a very large part of the audience responded that way, and that’s gratifying.”
The author was also grateful for the enthusiastic response of the 14 high-caliber authors who signed on to create stories for The Chronicles of Harris Burdick. They are Sherman Alexie, M.T. Anderson, Kate DiCamillo, Cory Doctorow, Jules Feiffer, Stephen King, Tabitha King, Lois Lowry, Gregory Maguire, Walter Dean Myers, Linda Sue Park, Louis Sachar, and Jon Scieszka. In the collection’s introduction, Lemony Snicket expands on Van Allsburg’s original conceit and suggests that Burdick himself actually penned the stories and gave them as gifts to the authors “who are now pretending to have written them.”
Some ‘Pretenders’ Chime In
Though she was initially intimidated when invited to contribute a story to the volume, Kate DiCamillo says, “I knew if I said ‘no,’ I would regret it for the rest of my life. The Mysteries of Harris Burdick is such a classic, and has been such a huge deal to me. It immediately knocked my socks off and continues to do so. Wherever I go to teach writing to adults or children, I take that book with me.”
In the drawing that inspired DiCamillo’s story, “The Third-Floor Bedroom,” a bird that is part of a wallpaper pattern appears to spring to life. Writing her story entailed what DiCamillo calls “working in a way that was the reverse of how I normally work. Usually something comes from my head, and then an illustrator produces images afterwards. Writing about an existing piece of art felt like taking a bath with my socks on. Something seemed just a little bit off.”
But her perseverance paid off. “I went through six or seven different approaches to the story before the voice of my character showed up,” she says. “When I finally hear that voice, I can always relax, because I know then that I can do it. In making leaps like this, I’ve learned that there are lots of different ways I can work.”
Writing a story based on another person’s artistic vision didn’t faze Louis Sachar, who notes, “In some ways it’s helpful to have something more than a blank page before me. I guess it’s easier to write from a prompt rather than write about anything you want. I found the drawings intriguing, and I’d never done anything like this before, so it definitely was a fun challenge.”
Sachar says he “gravitated immediately” to the illustration he selected to write about, the picture of a boy and a man who is swinging a lantern onshore as a ship emerges from the mist. “I guess it was the mystery of it that appealed to me—the schooner appearing through the fog—and also the tender relationship between the boy and the man,” he says. In “Captain Tory,” his interpretation of the drawing, a sea captain who perished in a shipwreck 165 years earlier befriends a boy and his mother. Sachar hopes that readers of the new anthology “take it as further inspiration to write their own stories.”
Cory Doctorow didn’t immediately know which Burdick illustration he wanted to write about. “I spent a lot of time thumbing through the original book,” he says. “I really like the ‘Boy’s Own Adventure’ feel of the illustration I chose, which put me in mind of the young-adult science fiction that Robert Heinlein wrote for Boy’s Life in the 1950s, which I consider to be some of his best work.” In the drawing that sparked Doctorow’s story, “Another Place, Another Time,” four children sit on a handcar that is topped by a sail and poised on a track heading out to sea.
The author sought out advice of physicists while writing his story, which explores concepts of time and space. “There was a physics challenge that I needed some help with,” he explains. “I love reading about quantum physics and multidimensional space, but on my best day, all I can say is that I have a sense of how that stuff works—not that I really understand it. Luckily, I had some physicists I could tap for brainstorming who were really helpful. Scientists are the science-fiction writer’s secret weapon.”
“Oscar and Alphonse,” Van Allsburg’s entry in The Chronicles of Harris Burdick,sprang from the drawing that remained after all the other contributors had selected theirs. “At the beginning, I told my editor, Margaret Raymo, that I would take the orphan,” he says. The drawing, in which a girl holds two caterpillars in her hand, inspired his story about two caterpillars who find the solution to a scientific conjecture left unfinished by an eccentric theoretical physicist who disappeared. “I like the idea, obviously, of mystery and things that are incomplete,” says Van Allsburg. “That’s essentially what creates the mysteries of Burdick himself, and in this story I was reprising in a sense the theme of the original Burdick selection, in that something goes missing, and it’s up to the reader to figure out how to make it whole.”
Houghton Mifflin will launch The Chronicles of Harris Burdick with a 250,000-copy first printing and a $300,000 marketing campaign. In late October, Van Allsburg kicks off a nine-city tour, on which he’ll make appearances with some of the contributors, including Scieszka, Park, Lowry, Alexie, Snicket, and DiCamillo. “I’m happy to finally meet him,” says DiCamillo, who will join Van Allsburg in her hometown of Minneapolis. “There is that muted magic in everything he does. All his work shimmers with possibility—anything can happen.”
The Chronicles of Harris Burdick: 14 Amazing Authors Tell the Tales by Chris Van Allsburg. Houghton Mifflin, $24.99 Oct. ISBN 978-0-547-54810-4