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Sonderbooks Book Review of

The Chronicles of Harris Burdick

14 Amazing Authors Tell the Tales

illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg


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The Chronicles of Harris Burdick

14 Amazing Authors Tell the Tales

illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg

Review posted February 5, 2012.
Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, 2011. 221 pages.
Starred Review
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2011: #5 Children's Fiction

One of the highlights of my year this year was when, on vacation, I was driving my son a couple hours in the State of Washington to visit a college, and I got him to read aloud to me from The Chronicles of Harris Burdick as I drove. He's 17, and we both thoroughly enjoyed the stories.

But let me backtrack. Many years ago, when I was first married (so about 25 years ago, in fact), a friend of my husband and me gave us The Mysteries of Harris Burdick for Christmas. (Thanks, Len!) It maybe wasn't a traditional gift to give a young couple, but we both loved it.

In the introduction to this new book, Lemony Snicket summarizes the premise behind the original book:

The story of Harris Burdick is a story everybody knows, though there is hardly anything to be known about him. More than twenty-five years ago, a man named Peter Wenders was visited by a stranger who introduced himself as Harris Burdick and who left behind fourteen fascinating drawings with equally if not more fascinating captions, promising to return the next day with more illustrations and the stories to match. Mr. Wenders never saw him again, and for years readers have pored breathlessly over Mr. Burdick's oeuvre, a phrase that here means "looked at the drawings, read the captions, and tried to think what the stories might be like." The result has been an enormous collection of stories, produced by readers all over the globe, imagining worlds of which Mr. Burdick gave us only a glimpse.

The original pictures, especially combined with the captions and titles, all have something eerie or surreal about them. For example, there's the picture that goes with the story "Under the Rug" that shows a lump under a rug, and a man with a bowtie holding a chair over his head about to swing it at the lump. The caption reads, "Two weeks passed and it happened again."

I've always had a special place in my heart for the picture that goes with "The Seven Chairs." You see a grand cathedral, and two priests standing and looking at a nun who is sitting calmly on a chair that is floating into the cathedral. The caption reads, "The fifth one ended up in France."

Chris Van Allsburg implied so much between the pictures, the titles, and the captions.

Back in 1993, Stephen King wrote a story to go with "The House on Maple Street" (the picture with the caption "It was perfect lift-off.") For this volume, they asked fourteen distinguished authors (including Chris Van Allsburg) to write stories to go with the pictures.

At first, I thought it might be a shame to actually write down a story. But I've been thinking about these pictures too long. I don't feel like these are the only possibilities. In fact, looking at the pictures still gets your mind spinning -- but these offerings are still tremendous fun.

Some do a better job than others, and some used approaches I wouldn't have ever taken, but I can honestly say that I enjoyed all the stories. In fact, this would be a fine collection of stories even if it didn't have such an intriguing history. In fact, I hope the publishers will consider making this a tradition every decade or so, and get 14 more authors to write the stories!

My personal favorites, in order of appearance, were Jon Scieszka's "Under the Rug"; Jules Feiffer's "Uninvited Guests"; Kate DiCamillo's "The Third-Floor Bedroom"; Chris Van Allsburg's "Oscar and Alphonse"; Stephen King's "The House on Maple Street"; and my very favorite, M. T. Anderson's "Just Desert."

These stories are eerie enough, they aren't for the usual picture book crowd. Teens, like my son, will definitely enjoy them, and so will elementary age kids who can handle and enjoy some creepiness. Who knows? Maybe a young married couple would enjoy receiving the book as a Christmas gift.

Like the years when we'd read our new Harry Potter book in England or Bavaria or wherever we were traveling on vacation, this book, in a smaller way, definitely enhanced my vacation. After all those years of reading to my boys, it's a treat to find a book that my son is willing to read to me. We only finished half the book on vacation, but when I read M. T. Anderson's story, I insisted that my son read it as well. I can confidently say this book spans many age ranges.