One Pulitzer Prize, five Newbery Medals, three Newbery Honors, two Caldecott Medals, one Caldecott Honor, three National Book Awards, seven National Book Award nominations, and five Coretta Scott King Awards. This is just a partial list of accolades that have been bestowed upon the contributors to a book that is due from Houghton Mifflin in fall 2011, tentatively titled The Chronicles of Harris Burdick: 14 Amazing Authors Tell the Tales. This short story collection expands on Chris Van Allsburg’s The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, which contains 14 evocative illustrations by the mysterious Burdick, each accompanied by a single line of text.
The original book, published in 1984, has sold more than 250,000 copies in the U.S. alone and continues to spark the imaginations of young readers, who are inspired to create their own stories to accompany the black-and-white pictures. The authors who agreed to do the same for the forthcoming middle-grade anthology are staples of bestseller lists: 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, Jon Scieszka, and Chris Van Allsburg. Lemony Snicket will contribute an introduction to the book.
Margaret Raymo, editorial director of Houghton Mifflin Books for Children and the editor of the collection, says the idea for The Chronicles of Harris Burdick was spawned by a school assignment given to her daughter, to write stories based on the illustrations in the original picture book. “I was talking to Chris and happened to mention that it might be neat to have various authors write short stories about the pictures in the book, and he was totally on board,” Raymo recalls. “He told me that Stephen King had already written a story based on one of the illustrations, which was published in Nightmares & Dreamscapes, a collection of his stories for adults.”
That gave Raymo a starting point. She signed up King’s story for the new collection, as well as one that his wife, author Tabitha King, had written based on a Harris Burdick illustration. From there, the editor assembled what she calls “a dream list of authors with sensibilities we thought might be perfect for this. I sent out copies of Harris Burdick that Chris had autographed, with my pitch letters, and the response was very positive—everyone was so open to and excited about the project.”
Handler, for example, called Raymo immediately to say how much he’d loved The Mysteries of Harris Burdick as a kid and to suggest he pen an introduction to the new book. As other authors agreed to participate in the project, each selected the picture he or she preferred to write about. Van Allsburg waited till the others had made their choices.
Raymo reports that most of the authors have already submitted their stories, and she’s very pleased with the results. “There is a great variety,” she notes. “Some stories are creepy, some funny. It’s a diverse and compelling collection.”
And one that has been somewhat of a challenge to pull together. “It’s definitely been a large task from the start, with 15 different contracts and many high-powered agents involved,” says the editor. “And in a way it’s like editing 14 different picture book texts. But obviously it has been great to have contact with all these authors.”
Discussing the appeal and longevity of The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, Raymo observes,“The illustrations can tell a thousand stories, and that’s what they’ve been doing over the years. Chris left so much unsaid, which is the brilliance of the book. I think The Chronicles of Harris Burdick will definitely draw people back to the original book, which will be around forever. I hope this new one will be as well.”