Review of The Chronicles of Harris Burdick, illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg

The Chronicles of Harris Burdick

14 Amazing Authors Tell the Tales

illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg

Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, 2011. 221 pages.
Starred Review
2011 Sonderbooks Standout: Children’s Fiction #5

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.

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.

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Source: This review is based on an Advance Review Copy I got at ALA Annual Conference.

Review of Traveling With Pomegranates, by Sue Monk Kidd and Ann Kidd Taylor

Traveling With Pomegranates

A Mother-Daughter Story

by Sue Monk Kidd and Ann Kidd Taylor

Viking, 2009. 282 pages.
Starred Review
2012 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #1 Biography

Sue Monk Kidd does meditative books very well. She catches you up in her musings and helps you reach life-changing insights along with her.

In this book, she pairs up with her daughter and both of them will speak to your soul.

This book covers some journeys the two took together, to Greece and France and home to South Carolina. The travels were momentous for both women. The first journey happened when Sue was turning fifty and Ann was graduating from college and growing up. So Sue was dealing with aging and maturing as a mother. And Ann was dealing with her life direction.

They both write in such a way that I felt I shared in both journeys. And both are dealing with a calling to write. Here’s a passage that Sue wrote:

“Perhaps she fought any urge to be a writer out of a need to separate herself from me and my path, the same way I separated myself from my mother and her path. When Ann went to college, I felt the invisible way she broke from me, in that way mothers feel barely discernible things. Even now, as we weave this new closeness, I do not mistake the separate core in her, her own nascent true self, and I watch how she protects it, even as she struggles to unfold it. Do her intuitions about writing come now because she has finally found enough of her separate self to entertain them?

“In my case, losing the small, true light was more like turning my back on it and finding something manageable. Becoming a nurse seemed more doable and sensible. You graduated and took a board exam. When you said, ‘I’m a nurse,’ you knew what you were talking about. You had proof. Nobody would register me as a writer. Would I be a writer if I never published anything? Would I be one even if I did? And the real question: how likely was it to happen? At eighteen, I couldn’t find the courage. I took all that passion and sublimated it into nursing. Until, at twenty-nine, it simply refused to go there anymore.

“I wonder if that’s the perennial story of writers: you find the true light, you lose the true light, you find it again. And maybe again.”

Later, back home in South Carolina, Ann writes:

“One day I thought: what if I approached learning the craft of writing as if it were an apprenticeship? Just do myself a favor and accept that it’s going to be a process, a slow, laborious process. In the Middle Ages, an apprenticeship lasted seven years. That was believed to be the minimum amount of time it took to learn a craft. I started to think of myself as an apprentice. I would tell myself, Relax, you’ve got seven years.

That’s just a little taste of the luxurious explorations these women do, bringing the reader along into symbolism, and archetypes, and mother-daughter bonding. I read this book slowly and meditatively, a little at a time, and stretched out the enjoyment all the longer that way. A lovely book. You’ll feel you have two new friends when you finish.

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Source: This review is based on a book given to me by the publisher at 2010 ALA Annual Conference and signed by both authors.

Review of Stars, by Mary Lyn Ray and Marla Frazee


by Mary Lyn Ray
illustrated by Marla Frazee

Beach Lane Books, 2011. 36 pages.
Starred Review
2011 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #1 Picture Books

I’m normally not very touched by conceptual picture books trying to give readers a warm feeling. But Stars is something special.

I love Marla Frazee’s illustrations, and the children in this book have all the emotional expression of her pictures of Clementine. The words point out how many different kinds of stars there are, from stars in the sky to stars on plants to fireworks.

The illustration on the cover appears in the book accompanied by these words:

“What if you could have a star? They shine like little silver eggs you could gather in a basket.

“Except you know you can’t. Not really.”

The next page begins a concept that carries on through further pages:

“But you can draw a star on shiny paper and cut around it. Then you can put it in your pocket. Having a star in your pocket is like having your best rock in your pocket, but different.

“Because a star is different from a rock.”

Later, we’re told:

“Some days you feel shiny as a star. If you’ve done something important, people may call you a star.

“But some days you don’t feel shiny.

“Those days, it’s good to reach for the one in your pocket.”

Of course, the perfect marriage of words and illustrations enhance these words, as well as the appropriate vertical format.

I think I may go make a star to put in my pocket.

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Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.