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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Harris Burdick

I first encountered Harris Burdick when I was in 6th grade.  I had a particularly wonderful 6th grade teacher (Mrs. Bloomquist, I know you're out there somewhere).  Anyway, it had been no secret I loved to write since 2nd grade.  My teachers knew I was always writing little stories and they encouraged it.  When I got to 6th grade, Mrs. Bloomquist called me up to her desk at the end of the day and told me about a summer writing camp for kids that she wanted to recommend me for.  She gave me the brochure to show my parents and I signed up.
The most memorable part of that experience was our final writing project.  The instructor brought in The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg.  Each of us had to select an illustration from the book and write a story to go with it.  If you haven't seen the book, get to a library or just go ahead and buy it.  The illustrations are slightly creepy and all come with a provocative title and caption.  Harris Burdick is the mysterious illustrator, according to the forward by Van Allsburg.  Trust me, you need to see this book.
So, as I was flipping through review journals for work a few weeks back, I was surprised and delighted to see The Chronicles of Harris Burdick: Fourteen Amazing Authors Tell the Tales / With an Introduction by Lemony Snicket by Chris Van Allsburg.  I couldn't wait to see an authoritative story for each picture.  Would they be anything close to what I'd imagined?  I immediately put the book on hold at the library and hoped it wouldn't take long to arrive.  It didn't.  And that leads me to this blog post.  I have read the book and wanted to share my thoughts with you.  
To begin with, I was disappointed.  I should have known it would happen, but really, some of the authors interpretations of the illustrations just felt so wrong it was like a betrayal of all the time I'd spent in my youth imagining about those drawings.  I considered not going on, so I took a break for a few days.  But I ended up persisting, and I'm glad I did.  None of the stories came close to what I'd imagined but most of them ended up being so surprising and interesting that it was worth the read.  Among the ones I loved, it's hard to pick a favorite, but the Cory Doctorow story thrilled me since it went the route of alternate realities.  If you've followed this blog for any length of time, you know how much I absolutely admire and cherish Michael Lawrence's The Aldous Lexicon, an alternate reality trilogy.  M.T. Anderson hit one out of the park with an otherworldly tale that becomes urgently personal by the end.  (Bear in mind, I've met M.T. and I don't think he was particularly taken with me.  But to break up the monotony of this post, I'll slip in my picture with him.)  
M.T. Anderson, not so impressed with The Restless Writer

Lois Lowry has a great imaginative and fun story in the collection.   And, Chris Van Allsburg, the one who started the whole thing, did a deeply satisfying and brilliant story as well.  

So, my verdict is:  I'm glad I continued reading the book but the fact remains, the original illustrations are so richly provocative that the imagination can ponder them into infinity and continue to generate new possibilities.  For that reason, the first wins my personal, "Best Books of All Time" award and the second wins a solid, "worth reading".  Both inspire the imagination and that's always a good thing.  

What are your experiences with Harris Burdick? 

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