Book Review: The Chronicles of Harris Burdick


For years now, I have been using Chris Van Allsburg’s wonderful The Mysteries of Harris Burdick picture book (the portfolio edition is best) for creative writing prompts and projects. It’s an ingenious collection of illustrations and captions from a “lost writer” whose stories are “missing,” leaving us only with the strange pictures and odd bits of writing beneath them that create many questions. My sixth graders love using Harris Burdick for writing because the illustrations spark incredible curiosity … about the missing stories and about the mystery behind the writer, Harris Burdick. They always want to know if Harris Burdick was real, and I dodge that question with all the expertise I can muster.

Now comes along The Chronicles of Harris Burdick, a new collection of short stories inspired by the picture book, but here, famous authors such as Stephen King (and his wife, Tabitha), Kate DiCamillo, Jon Scieszka, M.T. Anderson, Corey Doctorow and a handful of others take a stab at the 14 tales, too. Plus, Lemony Snicket provides his own brand of humorous introduction, casting forth a marvelous conspiracy theory about Harris Burdick and the writers featured in the book. What these novelists spin it out here is just as magical as what my students come up with (although, I still like my students’ stories better but you can put me down as biased on that point.)

What’s interesting to me is how many different directions a single story can go, even if they are all based on a similar illustration. We all have different perceptions and different insights, even if we start or end with the same idea. I’ve noticed this in class, too, but here, these professional writers take the stories on such interesting journeys that even as I was reading them, I was remembering some of the stories that I have written over the years using the same pictures (I write with my students all the time … you should, too). I kept pausing, thinking of the twists and turns on display.

And here’s the thing: Since I had used similar illustrations for similar story writing, it made their writing more visible to me. I was an active thinker the whole way through, noticing a sleight feint of hand here or a quirk in a character that I predicted might come in handy later on in the story or a hint early on that would move us closer to the scene in the picture. It was a pretty fascinating experience.

When my students saw me reading The Chronicles of Harris Burdick, they perked up. They’re curious, too. The day I finished the book in class during our quiet reading time, I had a line of students waiting to read it next. I have only one copy of the book, but the eagerness on their faces to see what other writers have done was priceless.  The girl who got it first was smiling wide and there was reading envy on the others’ faces. I think I might be making a trip to our photocopy machine one of these days and maybe share a story or two with everyone ….

Peace (in the mystery),


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