August 1, 2012

The Mysteries of Harris Burdick

THE MYSTERIES OF HARRIS BURDICK by Chris Van Allsburg (Houghton Mifflin, 1984)
GENRE: Mystery

REVIEW: The Mysteries of Harris Burdick is a deceptively simple book based on a deceptively simple premise. The author, award-winning Chris Van Allsburg, in a brief but fantastically contextualizing introduction, purports to be simply reproducing existing material - specifically, a collection of 12 illustrations, titles and first lines from 12 stories by a mysterious author named, Harris Burdick. Supposedly, Burdick left this "sample" of his work with a man named Peter Wenders 30 years before with the idea that if Wenders liked his work, Burdick would return with the rest of the stories and their illustrations. Wenders loved Burdick's work, but the author / illustrator never returned. His illustrations and titles, however, had inspired dozens of stories by the school children that Wenders had shown the work to. Inspired in turn, Van Allsburg states in his introduction that he is now publishing the "collection" in the hopes that it will inspire an even wider audience. The illustrations, as with all of Van Allsburg's art, are haunting and shadowy, hinting at far more than the eye initially sees. The titles and first lines add to the art's mystique, underscoring humor in some images, or, far more often, instilling the  illustrations with an odd, unsettling quality. Though the text is sparse, the visual and creative content is not. The Mysteries of Harris Burdick is full of enough mystery to inspire even the only marginally curious to return to the images again and again.

OPINION: To page casually through The Mysteries of Harris Burdick is to skim the surface of one's own creative potential. Though there is comparatively little text, the imaginative demands of the book's premise make it an excellent read for younger adolescents and a great creative tool / source of inspiration for tweens (and even teens) of all ages. Creepy, funny, unsettling and, indeed, mysterious, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick offers no solution to the problem of the missing manuscript pages or Burdick's disappearance, but it does offer the reader ample opportunity to write the resolution for themselves.

IDEAS: This is a fantastic book to spur discussions in a classroom or book club - how do you interpret the image? The title and first line? All three elements together? Why? It's also a great jumping off point for a creative writing exercise.

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