When I discovered Chris Van Allsburg’s works in our library, I knew I just had to get hold of his other picture books. I started with his The Mysteries of Harris Burdick for our Wordless Picture Book Special. For our Whodunit theme this May/June, I am using poetic license to bring in Van Allsburg’s penchant for the eerie, the mysterious, the surreal. This book won the ALA Notable Book for Children award (source: Houghton Mifflin Books).
Something Awful in the Midst. Nothing usually ever happens in the sleepy quiet little town of Riverbend. Van Allsburg describes it in this fashion:
Riverbend was a quiet little town – just a couple dozen buildings alongside a dusty road that led nowhere. Though the stagecoach occasionally rolled through town, it never stopped because no one ever came to Riverbend and no one ever left. It was the kind of place where one day was just like all the rest.
Hardly exciting, just your ordinary, run-in-the-mill provincial little town where one day excruciatingly eases into the next (must be the city-girl in me saying that). The peace, however, is shattered when – as we quote from Shakespeare’s Macbeth – ‘something wicked this way comes.’
Greasy streaks and Mysterious Lights. It was Owen Buck, the blacksmith’s boy who reported the incident in short gasping breaths to the Sheriff. At least the little that he could make sense of – the entire thing seems shrouded in secrecy and mystery.
The horses were nervous and breathing hard. They looked terrible, their smooth white coats scarred with the strange stuff that hung from them in loopy ropes or stuck out like stiff wire. The sheriff grabbed a piece with both hands. It was slippery. He gave it a pull, and the horse jerked away and whimpered in pain. Whatever it was, it stuck to them as sure as their flesh.
What could possibly be causing such pain, torture, and loss in this quiet town? People are disappearing and those who are found in the wayside looked awful with these mysterious colored striped marks all over their body.
Sheriff Ned Hardy Investigates. Uncertain of what to do, the town’s Sheriff figured that it is up to him to discover what these mystery marks are. He followed the wagon’s trail out west and soon he discovered that the ground was covered with these strange marks. Even the marching herd of cattle are covered in the sticky multi-colored slime. The sheriff decided to call on a town meeting where people talked about a brilliant blinding light that froze everything that it touched:
‘Like stepping out of a privy and looking straight into the sun at high noon,’ one of the cowboys said. ‘Couldn’t see a darn thing.’ When the light passed, they were covered with the greasy marks.
Exactly what these strange marks are, I shall leave for you to discover. Suffice it to say that Van Allsburg did not fail to deliver. Once again, he questions the boundaries between truth and fiction, the monochrome and the multicolored, the real and surreal. As the jacketflap of the book aptly puts it:
“Master artist and storyteller Chris Van Allsburg has created another surrealistic journey into the imagination, a provocative story within a story that leads the reader to ponder the realities of fictional worlds and the lives of the characters who populate them.”
Teacher Resources and Links. I am once again very happy to share with you that there are quite a number of resources for this book, Van Allsburg being who he is. This weblink here is a Teacher’s Guide created by Houghton Mifflin Books containing a summary of teaching ideas, guide questions, and possible set of activities that can be used in class.
This downloadable pdf file on the other hand is created by TeacherVision.fen – it contains a possible upper-grade writing lesson and a discussion guide on how the characters’ feelings changes as the story progresses. This Bookdads website, on the other hand, shared what it was like to listen to Van Allsburg speak at Schuler Books in Okemos, MI for an hour, where he shared his stories about writing books, publishing, and such.
Bad Day at Riverbend by Chris Van Allsburg. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1995. Book borrowed from the community library.