Mysteries of H. Burdick

Book Card  -  Volume 3  -  Book Review Number 2  -  Mon, Nov 28, 1988 8:35 PM

TITLE: Mysteries of Harris Burdick
AUTHOR: Chris Van Allsburg
PUBLISHER: Houghton Mifflin & Co. (or is it Howard's Muffin Co.? I forget)

For my money Chris Van Allsburg is the best illustrator of children's books going today. His mysterious, compelling, sometimes scary drawings make your breath catch in your throat and the exclamation "Oh!" or "Ah!" escape from your lips. For the pure art of illustration I would recommend his book,THE POLAR EXPRESS. But for a Ponarvian, I would also recommend a less well known book of Van Allsburg's that came out in 1984 entitled THE MYSTERIES OF HARRIS BURDICK.

Here's the context: In the book's intro, Van Allsburg relates how he first saw the drawings of a mysterious man named Harris Burdick in the home of a one time children's book publisher named Peter Wenders. Wenders tells Van Allsburg about how 30 years ago a man named Harris Burdick came into his office and explained that he had written 14 stories and had drawn many pictures for each one. He'd brought with him just one drawing from each story, to see if Wenders liked his work.

Wenders was fascinated and told Burdick he would like to read the stories that went with the drawings. The artist agreed to bring the stories the next morning, but he never returned. Wenders could discover nothing of who Burdick was or what had happened to him. That was a mystery in itself, but the real mystery is what were the stories that went with Burdick's drawings, for, though Burdick had written a title and a caption for each picture, he had left no stories.

Van Allsburg tells Wenders how difficult it is to look at the drawings without imagining a story. Wenders agrees and goes into another room, returning with a dust covered cardboard box. It contains dozens of stories, that went with the drawings, all written years ago by Wenders children and their friends. And so, Van Allsburg, "in the hope that other children [and Archipelagoans] will be inspired by them," reproduces Burdick's drawings for the first time in this book, THE MYSTERIES OF HARRIS BURDICK. His hope is that readers will continue to make up stories to go along with the pictures, just as Wenders' children did long ago.

The drawings are all done with pencil and charcoals. They tend to be very shadowy and magical, dreamlike.

Here is a picture entitled, "A Strange Day in July." It is a drawing of two children standing on a little beach littered with smooth stones. You can see the sunlight refracted into little stars on the rippling water. The girl wears a white, almost diaphanous dress. The boy holds a stone in his right hand.You can't see the children's faces, but you can see that they are intent on watching something out on the water. The caption reads, "He threw with all his might, but the third stone came skipping back."

Here is another picture entitled "Mr. Linden's Library." The picture is of a little girl sleeping. She has fallen asleep while reading a book. The book has been left open, resting on her arm. Vine-like plants are growing out of the book's open page and from the book's spine. Two of the vines have reached the girl's wrist by now. One is lightly touching it. The other seems to be beginning to curl around her wrist. The girl is completely oblivious. The caption to the picture reads, "He had warned her about the book. Now it was too late."

Here is a picture of an open window. A breeze is blowing the curtains into a blustery swirl. You can't see distinctly what is outside, just light and shadow. What dominates the picture is the window, the curtains, and a wall wallpapered in a pattern of white birds and interlinking vines. If you look closely you can see one of the birds coming to life. Its wing is lifting out of the wallpaper pattern. The picture is entitled "The Third-Floor Bedroom." The caption reads, "It all began when someone left the window open."

Here is a picture of a railroad track jutting out over a body of water until it fades into the distance. There is a cart on the tracks that is propelled by a sail. Four children sit in the cart. You can only see their backs. Half of the picture is dominated by heavy, dark clouds. It must be sunset or sunrise because the rippling underbellies of the clouds are tinged with light. One of the children is dressed in a sailor suit and holds the rope that controls the sail. Another child sits next to him. He wears a little pack and is looking to his right, where you can just see the faint outlines of a castle in the right hand margins of the page. This picture is called, "Another Place, Another Time." The caption reads "If there was an answer, he'd find it there."

I find this book spell-binding. I can look at it for hours. It is a book for dreamers. I would recommend it to fellow Ponarvians on that basis alone. But I also think that its pictures and captions would provide a great inspiration for the kind of interactive fiction projects in which Archipelagoans delight. It would be nice if there were some way to reproduce the picture on the Mac. If not, and we decide to actually write some of these Harris Burdick stories ourselves, maybe THE MYSTERIES OF HARRIS BURDICK would become a sort of Ponarvian textbook for us. At any rate, I recommend that you find this wonderful book and savor it. Good hunting. Ciao.