The Mysteries of Harris Burdick


Written and Illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg

Houghton Mifflin, 1984

I first saw the drawings in the book a year ago, in the home of a man named Peter Wenders.

The plot in a nutshell: Fourteen pictures with captions.

In the introduction, author/illustrator Chris Van Allsburg tells a story about meeting with a children’s book publisher named Peter Wenders, who showed him a set of 14 pictures that he was given by a mysterious man named Harris Burdick. According to the story, Harris Burdick gave the publisher these 14 pictures with titles and captions and promised to return with full stories, but he never did. The rest of the book is simply the collection of pictures, complete with titles and captions, and we are left to imagine the stories that may have gone along with them.

What an amazing concept for a picture book! Researching this one was definitely like falling down a rabbit hole, as I just kept finding new and fascinating information. Author/illustrator Chris Van Allsburg has a unique artistic style and any fan can see that these pictures are his creations and yet you buy into the backstory of them all the same. The captions and titles for the pictures take them to a new level, where you stop being the reader and become the storyteller. I think it may be impossible to keep your brain from trying to come up with the stories to go along with these compelling visuals.

The Rug

Probably my favorite caption:  “Two weeks later, it happened again.”

As you may imagine, hundreds of kids and classrooms have tried their hands at telling these stories and you can find a lot of them on the book’s website. But you can also pick up the book’s companion piece, called The Chronicles of Harris Burdick and get story versions of all 14 pictures written by an impressive list of contemporary authors, including Lois Lowry, Jules Feiffer, Louis Sacher, Gregory Maguire and even Stephen King.  I have already added this follow-up book to my library list.

And what did we learn? What I take away from this book is that sometimes all it takes to make a great story is a tiny little nugget of an idea.


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