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Subtlety, Shadows and Poetry in Chris Van Allsburg’s The Mysteries of Harris Burdick

As we are about to end the month of April and begin with our new Bimonthly Feature, I felt that Chris Van Allsburg’s collection of ‘The Mysteries of Harris Burdick’ would be a fantastic way to kind of end our wordless picture book theme and usher in our new theme for the months of May-June on mystery, mayhem, suspense, detective story,

Our Bimonthly theme for May/June: Whodunit!

‘whodunit.’ It has a strange, eerie quality to it that raises more questions than answers and I realize now as I was googling for resources on this book how huge a following Mr. Burdick has all over the globe. Amazing what a set of fourteen seemingly-disconnected black and white drawings with equally strange captions can do.

Click on the image to be taken to the websource.

Introductory Note by Author. Since I type quite fast, I thought I might as well share with you dear readers bits and pieces of the introduction of Chris Van Allsburg himself as he wrote it from Providence, Rhode Island. To say that it has mystified me would be an understatement. There is a shadowy feel to the images in the book, as if there is someone behind you as you flip through the pages, only to find that you’re alone in the room, with hairs standing at the back of your neck.

I first saw the drawings in this book a year ago, in the home of a man named Peter Wenders. Though Mr. Wenders is retired now, he once worked for a children’s book publisher, choosing the stories and pictures that would be turned into books.

Thirty years ago a man called at Peter Wender’s office, introducing himself as Harris Burdick. Mr. Burdick explained that he had written fourteen stories and had drawn many pictures for each one. He’d brought with him just one drawing from each story, to see if Wenders liked his work.

Peter Wenders was fascinated by the drawings. He told Burdick he would like to read the stories that went with them as soon as possible. The artist agreed to bring the stories the next morning. He left the fourteen drawings with Wenders. but he did not return the next day. Or the day after that. Harris Burdick was never heard from again. Over the years, Wenders tried to find out who Burdick was and what had happened to him, but he discovered nothing. To this day Harris Burdick remains a complete mystery.

The images that spoke to me. Out of the 14 black and white illustrations I have chosen three of my favorites, along with the captions:

A Strange Day in July

He threw with all his might, but the

third stone came skipping back.


Mr. Linden’s Library

He had warned her about the book.

Now it was too late.

While I am only including three favorites here, please do know that I found it extremely difficult to choose because all the images moved me in different ways.

The House on Maple Street

It was a perfect lift-off.

The Inspiration that is Harris Burdick. Over the years since the book was published, the mysteries enclosed in these pages have inspired quite a number of writers, artists, musicians, and educators. It is my pleasure to be sharing a few resources with you. We begin with this Teacher’s Guide as created by Houghton Mifflin Books which include a summary of teaching ideas and collective story telling exercises to name a few.

The Mysteries of Harris Burdick also has an official website within Houghton Mifflin. Here, we could see a collection of readers’ stories as written by young children from age eight to thirteen. There is also a story-writing contest as based on the images found in Harris Burdick. While the winning entries are now posted on the website, new stories will still be posted each month, and writers will be selected at random to receive books autographed by Chris Van Allsburg and other Burdick-inspired items.

Oscar and Alphonse. Also a favorite.

I also had a chance to see how other educators made use of this book in their classroom. In this classroom book talk website, a wikispace was created where children aged 9 -12 coming from 14 classes all around the world – collaboratively wrote a story that goes along with each page of the book. Classes were said to have communicated through Google docs, email, and Skype and students paired up with one or two students from their partner class. This project apparently won 2nd place in the ISTE Sigtel Online Learning Award in 2008.

In this Alabama Learning Exchange (ALEX) website, a detailed lesson plan was provided by Chad Strawn from Glencoe Elementary School. Possible classroom activities, discussion pointers, even a rubric for the story writing – were included.

My only peeve is that while there are a number of stories/narratives written as based on the illustrations – I did not come across any poetry. I believe that the subtlety encased in the almost-haiku-like captions of each image is deserving of something short, equally enigmatic, and puzzling rhythm without reason. The codes, clues, and cryptic lines fit poetry more than prose. Then again, it could just be my bias for poetry.

About the Author. Chris Van Allsburg is the author-illustrator of books such as The Polar Express, Jumanji, and Zathura – which have all been adapted into blockbuster films. He has also received multiple awards including two Caldecott Medals and one Caldecott Honor to name several. Click here to be taken to his official website.

If you’ve ‘read’ The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, do drop us a line and let us know which one happens to be your favorite image. I would also recommend that you read the book with this video clip running in the background (with its eerie music). Enjoy!

The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1984. Book borrowed from the NIE Library.

Picture Book Challenge Update: 64 of 72

Myra is a Teacher Educator and a registered clinical psychologist based in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates. Prior to moving to the Middle East, she lived for eleven years in Singapore serving as a teacher educator. She has edited five books on rediscovering children’s literature in Asia (with a focus on the Philippines, Malaysia, India, China, Japan) as part of the proceedings for the Asian Festival of Children’s Content where she served as the Chair of the Programme Committee for the Asian Children’s Writers and Illustrators Conference from 2011 until 2019. While she is an academic by day, she is a closet poet and a book hunter at heart. When she is not reading or writing about books or planning her next reads, she is hoping desperately to smash that shuttlecock to smithereens because Badminton Is Life (still looking for badminton courts here at UAE - suggestions are most welcome).

6 comments on “Subtlety, Shadows and Poetry in Chris Van Allsburg’s The Mysteries of Harris Burdick

  1. These are amazing. Thanks for sharing.


    • myragarcesbacsal

      Hi Beverly, thanks for dropping by. It’s my pleasure. I am amazed at how much this book has inspired so many young writers.


  2. wow. lovely. I always had this book in my to-buy list. This post makes it more urgent! Thanks.


    • myragarcesbacsal

      Hi Sathish, thanks for dropping by. It sure is worth it. Timeless beauty.


  3. Pingback: Reading in April’s Heat: An April Round-up |

  4. Pingback: Mystery behind the Colored Striped Marks: Chris Van Allsburg’s Bad Day at Riverbend |

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