Wednesday, September 28, 2011: Kids' Maximum Shelf: The Chronicles of Harris Burdick

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Children's: The Chronicles of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Children's: The Chronicles of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Children's: Jumanji by Chris Van Allsburg

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Children's: The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg

Editors' Note

Maximum Shelf: The Chronicles of Harris Burdick

In this edition of Kids' Maximum Shelf--the monthly Shelf Awareness feature that focuses on an upcoming title that we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere--we present The Chronicles of Harris Burdick: 14 Amazing Authors Tell the Tales by Chris Van Allsburg, which goes on sale on October 25, 2011. The review and interviews are by Jennifer M. Brown. Houghton Mifflin, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, has helped support the issue.


Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Children's: The Chronicles of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg

Books & Authors

Children's Review: The Chronicles of Harris Burdick

The Chronicles of Harris Burdick: 14 Amazing Authors Tell the Tales by Chris Van Allsburg, with an introduction by Lemony Snicket (Houghton Mifflin/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $24.99, 9780547548104, 208p., ages 10-14, October 25, 2011)

More than 25 years ago, Chris Van Allsburg published the original The Mysteries of Harris Burdick--a set of 14 drawings connected only by their elusive quality and a caption that suggests that each is part of a larger story. Van Allsburg's introduction explained that Harris Burdick had met with an editor, Peter Wenders, and showed him one image each from 14 stories he'd written and illustrated. Wenders expressed interest in the project and invited Burdick to bring him the rest. Burdick said he'd be back the next day. He was never seen or heard from again.

Those 14 images have sparked the imaginations of thousands of young readers and writers, many of whom sent their stories to Van Allsburg. One of those writers has quite a high profile: Stephen King. With The Chronicles of Harris Burdick, 14 esteemed authors and artists, including Van Allsburg and King, each create a story inspired by one of those images.

Lemony Snicket, in his introduction to this collection, ups the ante. He suggests that the 14 contributors here know Burdick's whereabouts but are keeping it secret. In fact, he believes that Burdick actually wrote these stories and distributed them among his "cohorts, a word that here means 'other people in his line of work.' " Snicket acts as the ideal emcee, creating a literary equivalent of nesting dolls.

The stories range in tone from funny to creepy to poignant and often blend these qualities, and they will all haunt you--a word that here means both "to continually seek the company of" and "to have a disquieting effect on." The elegantly designed volume presents each image printed in sepia tones on coated paper on the right, with its title and caption on the left-hand page. The story follows, with each author incorporating the caption at some point in his or her story.

The book begins and ends with Kings. According to Van Allsburg, Stephen King received The Mysteries of Harris Burdick as a gift, and his novelist wife, Tabitha King, suggested they try their hand at stories to fill out Burdick's images. Her opener, an out-of-this-world baseball tale, casts "Archie Smith, Boy Wonder," as a home-run hitter who likens his at-bats to Luke in Star Wars ("wielding his Jedi light sword against a tiny sphere of light")--which turns out to be a prescient thought when tiny spheres of light visit him one night. Stephen King's "The House on Maple Street" (which originally appeared in his 1993 collection Nightmares and Dreamscapes) is presented alongside its inspiration: a house literally blasting off, using its perfectly manicured suburban yard as its launchpad. Inside that house, King imagines four children who blame their stepfather for their mother's unhappiness and frequent migraines. They discover some oddities about the house and, after some investigation, realize the house itself could help them solve their stepfather problem.

Jon Scieszka's "Under the Rug" is the first of three stories that reveal how much we use laughter as a release from fear and anxiety. His narrator's grandmother spews so many clichés that the boy rarely heeds them. But how he wishes he'd taken her advice to "Never sweep a problem under the rug"--a tale with a scary-funny resolution that only Scieszka could deliver. Lois Lowry suggests in "The Seven Chairs" that girl babies are born to levitate, they just forget how--except for Mary Katherine Maguire, who hones her skill with entertaining results and takes the idea of the flying nun to a whole new level. Pearlie's brother has gone to war and left her with "fat-ankled Aunt Hazel" in "The Third-Floor Bedroom" by Kate DiCamillo. When Pearlie falls ill, the walls that confine her spur a transformation, and the author allows the girl's mask to fall away, revealing a depth beneath Pearlie's unflappable veneer.

Several stories deliver justice through comeuppance. The terrible twins in "A Strange Day in July" by Sherman Alexie invent a triplet that strikes terror in the hearts of their parents, classmates and teacher--and eventually its siblings. A book wields the power in "Mr. Linden's Library" by Walter Dean Myers. The retired merchant seaman of the title tells young Carol Jenkins she's welcome to borrow any book from his collection--except the one that's lying open. Some books "capture more of the mind than one would want to surrender," he warns. (This tale may cause you to reassess your reading habits.) In a way, the caterpillar stars of "Oscar and Alphonse: The Farkas Conjecture" by Chris Van Allsburg get the last word ("spelling out 'goodbye' ") when they leave an open question--in more ways than one.

Many of the mysteries here begin with an unrecoverable loss. Cory Doctorow's young hero, Gilbert, uses what he knows of time and space to journey with two friends along the rails on a handcar to "Another Place, Another Time," in which his father is not lost at sea. A caped magician works his magic "closer to home" when he brings together two bickering sisters and a boy whose mother has just died in "The Harp" by Linda Sue Park. Linus, too, has just lost his father and must now rely upon a greedy stepmother in "Missing in Venice" by Gregory Maguire. The boy finds a magical ring that belongs to a baker he deems "the Queen of Gingerbread," and their fates become entwined on the city's canals. And Paul, the young hero of "Captain Tory" by Louis Sachar, will never be able to replace the loss of his parent, but he finds a way to create a different sense of home through the presence of Captain Tory in his life. Henry has lost his wife and sons to "a permanent vacation" because he put his work as a children's author and artist ahead of them, and now his characters lead Henry down a seemingly inescapable path in "Uninvited Guests" by Jules Feiffer. M.T. Anderson's "Just Desert" will rock your world as surely as he does Alex Lee's on the eve of his 10th birthday (the Lees' address happens to be on Maple Street); Alex's loss may be the most profound.

The stories feel complete, yet unfinished, as if the characters and situations live on without us to witness their continuation. Will Gilbert find his father? Will our next-door neighbor's house suddenly blast off? Is our world real? The stories and their open questions linger in our minds and in our thoughts. At the same time, the stories suggest that we examine our surroundings more closely, for that hidden harp music or sentient caterpillars or the squid hiding in a Venetian canal. The images and stories here are a meditation on the known and unknowable and ask us to consider the mystery, the sense of possibility, as perhaps more alluring than what we know.


Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Children's: Queen of the Falls by Chris Van Allsburg

Chris Van Allsburg: The Alchemy of Words and Images

"I'm a rational person and believe in the virtues of science and reason," Van Allsburg said, "but there's something about things that are inexplicable that hold your attention." His exploration of the inexplicable has held readers' attention from his very first book, The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, in which the boy hero is left wondering if Gasazi is a sleight-of-hand master or a true wizard. Here he expands upon his fascination with the inexplicable, and the enduring appeal of the enigmatic Harris Burdick.

How did the idea for the original The Mysteries of Harris Burdick evolve?

One of the inspirations grew out of experiences I had at flea markets with dealers of ephemera--posters, postcards, small matted images that have come out of books. If they take out the 20 illustrations and matte each one separately and sell them for $10, they'll make more, so they cannibalize the book. One of these dealers had some Gustave Doré sort of works, and he'd matted them in a way that retained the caption. The addition of a few words to this image was like putting a match to the thing--not to destroy it, but to create some heat.

It's amazing that an image that could be perhaps banal and a caption that's perhaps banal as well can interact in a way that triggers the imagination to make sense of the two things together. It's a kind of alchemy; they catalyze each other. That's the best thing about picture books—the way the words and images heighten each other.

Stephen King must have been similarly inspired by your image and caption for "The House on Maple Street" when he wrote a story based on it (published in 1993).

The introduction [to Mysteries] was embraced by the King family. Stephen, his wife, Tabitha, and his son wrote stories. When he was putting together the short story anthology Nightmares & Dreamscapes, he decided to include the Burdick story that he'd written. He asked if I would give permission to have this happen. I said absolutely! By that point, I'd received thousands of stories in the mail from kids. I thought it would be great to have a higher profile storyteller demonstrate the effect of this caption and picture on him, and his psychology.

And how did this new project, The Chronicles of Harris Burdick evolve?

A couple years ago, Margaret Raymo, my editor, said, "What would you think of asking Stephen King to republish his story as part of a collection and approach some other authors?" I was absolutely for it. "The House on Maple Street" was off the table, and "Archie Smith, Boy Wonder" was also off the table. [Tabitha King had written a story for it.] I told Margaret I wanted everyone to have a choice. The one left behind would be mine.

So "Oscar and Alphonse" was the last one left, for you to write? That's surprisingthe theme of your story so strongly echoes Harris Burdick's.

Like a politician, it doesn't matter what question you're asked, you have your answer. As an artist, if you have a theme you're working on, that's the one you're going to develop. I was reprising the theme of the original Harris Burdick [project]--things that don't get finished. The Farkas Conjecture in "Oscar and Alphonse" never really gets completed. The same narrative cycle continues. With the caterpillars, my idea was to create some ambiguity. There's a perplexing moment for the father and brothers: Is this truly magical--that caterpillars can do higher metaphysical physics? Or was the sister who shares the same genetic material capable of this kind of thinking, and the caterpillars create random movements, but she reveals her intellect by communicating with nature rather than by herself?

Then it would not have mattered which picture was left for you?

The interesting thing is that there are as many stories as there are people who hold them. It's like the Thematic Apperception Test. It's more specific than Rorschach but it works the same way. In that test, the psychologist uses photographs that are staged. A man, woman and child would be involved in an ambiguous interaction, and the psychologist says, "Tell me what's happening in this picture." The child would describe something that would reveal a reality about the child's own family dynamic. That's what happens anytime someone writes a Burdick story.

If the 14 of us all did it again but it was like musical chairs, then there'd be 14 volumes--14 versions of a single story. That really shows clearly how different people's imaginations can vary given the exact same stimulation. I realized later that Zathura could have been my "The House on Maple Street."

You render most of your work in black-and-white. Why?

In college, all I did was make sculpture, and I drew my studies for the sculptures in black and white. Then I decided as a lark to do some drawing and ultimately ended up doing The Garden of Abdul Gasazi. I remember when it came out, there were laudatory reviews about the intelligent choice of the artist to use black and white because it reinforced the slightly surreal theme. But it was a decision made of limitation.

If you use black and white on a highly representational style, you end up creating things with a different quality of light, because you're only using contrast rather than color. You're not sure exactly what time of day it is or what the sky's like underneath. It has that surreal quality I'm drawn to as a storyteller and a picture maker. As each year goes by, it gets stranger to see things in black and white. It's almost been banished from the visual landscape. As it becomes scarcer and scarcer, it's strangeness will become greater and greater.

Your exploration of artwork as a representation of reality often feels more real than what we experience.

There is a quality to art that's a little like magic. I've always been attracted to trompe l'oeil and optical illusion. The idea of artist as magician has always appealed to me, and there's a playfulness to that. Not to trifle with the reader or onlooker, but to point out that imagination and reality do overlap, and permeate each other in ways that art sometimes can reveal. I think people think if they're awake it's reality, and if they're dreaming they're not in reality. There's a lot going on when you're awake that's driven by the subconscious. It's true even on the level of perception. Oliver Sachs writes about subjects like that--how the brain is processing the stimuli that it gets. In some ways, art can facilitate people's experience of that.


Rediscovering Harris Burdick

After Margaret Raymo's daughter was assigned to write a story based on one of The Mysteries of Harris Burdick in her third-grade class, the editor got an idea. She asked Chris Van Allsburg what he thought about publishing a collection of stories based on his artwork from Mysteries. "That's when he told me about the Stephen King story," Raymo said.

Raymo visited Van Allsburg with a list, and they sat at the table together. "I asked Chris to inscribe maybe 30 copies to begin with," she recalled. She still has inscribed books that never got sent out with an invitation to contribute a story. They sent the invitations one at a time because she and Van Allsburg wanted the authors to have a choice. "A few got away, but I understand they were very busy," she said.

The stroke of genius to include an introduction to the work of the elusive Harry Burdick from Lemony Snicket was, naturally, Lemony Snicket's idea, according to Raymo. "I sent it to him asking him to write a story, and he asked if he could write the introduction," she said. Van Allsburg liked the way the stories "all have the DNA of their authors on it." Raymo agreed, adding, "You get a flavor of the author's body of work, and they all took such a different approach." She didn't give the authors any direction whatsoever, only a word count.

Linda Sue Park ("The Harp") discovered Mysteries when she was fairly new to children's books. She remembered thinking how daring it was for the publisher to bring out a book of what were essentially unconnected illustrations. But she said that's nothing compared to the risk with this project. "To entrust those beautiful enigmatic drawings to a gang of rowdy, ungainly, wild-eyed, half-crazed writers," she said. "You bet I wanted in on that kind of fun!"

Gregory Maguire also confesses to a bit of skepticism when Raymo approached him about contributing a story for what he calls the "trippy, soft-focus, Life-magazine-circa-1947 drawings. They seem so solidly real and right that I hesitated to interfere," he said. Then Maguire thought, "Hey, I'm the bozo who interfered with The Wizard of Oz, for Pete's sake." Luckily, he'd been toying with a "sort of Hansel-und-Gretel tale called 'The Gingerbread Gondola,' " so the picture Missing in Venice (which also graces the volume's cover) seemed tailor-made for the author of Wicked. A former middle-school teacher, Maguire also admits to carving up a copy of The Mysteries of Harris Burdick as story starters for his students, because they "capture a peak moment in an implied narrative"--not unlike the ephemera dealer whose wares first inspired Van Allsburg in a flea market one day.

Like Van Allsburg, Lois Lowry had been edited for many years by Walter Lorraine and had known both the author-artist and his Mysteries since the book's inception. Lowry's grandchildren had also used the book in school, but she made some demands. "I was delighted to be included," Lowry said, "but only, I told Margaret, if I could have the floating nun! That nun had fascinated me for years."

Lowry's choice created some friction with Jon Scieszka, who had known and loved Mysteries since it came out. "It was one of those books that made me jealously wish I had come up with the idea... and also jealously wish I could draw like Chris," Scieszka admitted. When Raymo invited him to write a story, he said, "I knew exactly which picture I wanted to write about--the one of the floating nun in the chair," he said. But Lois Lowry had beaten him to the pick. "Since Lois had first dibs, she got to choose the weapons for our duel to settle the deadlock. She chose Newbery medals. I got whomped. Whomped bad," he said. Then he added in a whisper, "But don't tell anyone about it, okay? Because after I recovered, I had a great time coming up with a tale demented enough to go with the illustration for 'Under the Rug.' I really did."


Book Brahmin: Chris Van Allsburg

On your nightstand now:

The Lost Cyclist by David Herlihy

Favorite book when you were a child:

Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson

Your top five authors:

In no particular order and at this moment: John Barth, Charles Dickens, Mark Helprin, Conan Doyle, Kurt Vonnegut.

Your top five artists:

Caspar David Friedrich, Max Klinger, Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, H.C. Westermann, Franklin Booth.

Book you've faked reading:

I think I may have CliffNoted the last 100 pages of Les Miserables

Book you are an evangelist for:

The Sot-Weed Factor by John Barth.

Book you've bought for the cover:

The Knave of Hearts by Louise Saunders.

Book that changed your life:

But I have not read it yet.

Book you most want to read again for the first time:

The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut.


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