Wednesday, April 20, 2011

J Desk: The Mysteries of Harris Burdick

Image credit: Chris Van Allsburg

One of the more complicated feelings I get working at the J Desk is encountering a new or new-to-me children's book that doesn't just earn a reaction of "I like this," or "I want to promote this," but "I wish I'd run into this when I was a kid."

The funny thing about The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, though, is that this book appeared when I was still in high school, so I could have run into it. Maybe I even did, and avoided it as a little odd.

You see, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, despite being from Chris Van Allsburg, the great storyteller behind such picture books as Jumanji, Zathura, and The Polar Express, is not really a story. It's instead fourteen titles of stories that don't exist, with fourteen illustrations and the captions to go with them.

For example the name of the absent story for the picture above is "Another Place, Another Time," and the caption is "If there was an answer, he'd find it there."

In another picture, for "The Third-Floor Bedroom," we see an empty room with a wallpaper bird peeling itself off the wall and stretching a wing: "It all began when someone left the window open."

In the picture for "The Seven Chairs," we see a nun levitating on a chair in the mist of a cathedral. The caption reads, "The fifth one ended up in France."

In the introduction to the book, Van Allsburg spins the tale of a mysterious Harris Burdick, a vanished storyteller who left behind only these materials, and whose full tales disappeared with him. Van Allsburg invites the reader to imagine what those stories might have been. These fourteen pieces then are fourteen invitations, to get past the fear of the blank page and get started creating.

It's no surprise that The Mysteries of Harris Burdick has been used as a creative writing prompt in schools. You can see a teacher's guide at the publisher's web site, and an example of what some students did with the book here. On Van Allsburg's own site you can find lots of resources about the book.

I love the way this book spurs creativity, and for that reason I was a little nervous to discover there will soon be an official short story collection based on it. The talent assembled is top-notch, and I'm sure the stories will be great, but will they discourage, however slightly, kids from inventing their own?

In an interview on To the Best of Our Knowledge, author Michael Chabon once talked about how liberating to his young imagination were incomplete or contradictory stories, because the blank spaces and questions were invitations to make up his own extensions to a tale. His examples were the works of Sherlock Holmes, which have their inconsistencies, and the short-lived Planet of the Apes television series, which was canceled before it could complete its storyline. Chabon said the show wasn't great -- and in fact might have been awful -- but it got his young mind making up stories in the way a perfect jewel of a tale would not have.

I can see a connection there to the phenomenon of fanfiction, particularly where it tries to make up for the loss of canceled tv series or book series, or frustrating directions those series take. I wonder also if this invitation to add to an imaginative space is why artists and architecture students keep returning to Italo Calvino's evocative, but brief, descriptions of Invisible Cities.

So in that spirit, just for fun, here's an entry in the style of Harris Burdick.

"Egad!" said the professor. "It's a dracocumulus."

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