Monday, May 27, 2013

Book Review: The Chronicles of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg (and Various Authors)

"The House on Maple Street"
25 years ago Harris Burdick walked into the office of a former children's book illustrator, Peter Wender,  handed him 14 incredible, seemingly unrelated, black-and-white sketches with cryptic titles and captions. Wender loved them. Burdick promised to return the next day with more illustrations and the stories to go with all of them. He was never heard from again. Years later, Wender's children began writing stories to go with the illustrations, and that spread into schools, where teachers assign their students to write stories to accompany the pictures, too. Recently, the pictures were shown to Chris Van Allsburg ("The Polar Express", "Jumanji"), who recruited 13 other well-known authors, including Stephen King, John Scieszka, Louis Sachar, Kate DiCamillo and Lois Lowry (among others) to write stories for the pictures. They are all included in the volume "The Chronicles of Harris Burdick"

I wish the images were available online in better quality scans. These just don't do them justice; they really are breathtaking.

My favorite one.  "Under the Rug"
First, a confession. I heard about this book through some library booklist sources, and thinking it sounded intriguing, I checked it out from the local library. Apparently, I'm rather gullible, because I believed the story of the mysterious appearance/disappearance of the illustrator completely. I thought about how truth sometimes really is stranger than fiction, and that it would be so cool to find out what happened to him. 

Um. No.

Before writing this blog entry today, I looked up some articles on the book and the illustrations and I found this one: from Oregon Live that pointed out the obvious... the illustrations are in Chris Van Allsburg's definitive style, and he almost admits to being the artist behind them. In Lemony Snicket-Daniel Handler style, he avoids coming right out and saying it, but... duh.

So... I feel a little foolish.

In the book's introduction, by the aforementioned Lemony Snicket, the story of the mysterious disappearing illustrator is recounted, with never a clue (to me) that it's phony. That should have been my first clue.

Oh well. 

I'll never trust again. 

As for the book itself, the illustrations are intriguing, and beautiful and mysterious and enchanting. Van Allsburg's use of contrasting light and dark is stunning.
"Just Desert"
And the stories? Because the authors involved are so varied, it's to be expected that some would appeal to me more than others. They are all quite short, so some appear more as a snapshot of the character's lives and others are able to squeeze a good, complete story into theirs. My favorites are Sherman Alexie's "A Strange Day in July" and Louis Sachar's "Captain Tory". Some of the others are really good, too, but a couple of them are downright disappointing. One doesn't even seem to match it's picture!

A Strange Day in July
Regardless of the up and down story quality, it's a really fun, light read. This book is NOT for younger readers (I wouldn't recommend it to readers under the age of 10, until you've read them-- you know your kids' sensitivity) as some of the stories are a little creepy (as are some of the illustrations). But it was a perfect summer kick-off book for me. And my daughter. 

"Chronicles" is also, as originally intended in "The Mysteries of Harris Burdick" (released in the '90s), a fantastic collection of writing prompts. It's very tempting to buy "Mysteries" so I will have the illustrations without the other pesky authors getting in the way, and I can write my own stories to go with the pictures. Something to do when you get writer's block, at least, right?

This is definitely worth picking up, and don't be turned off that the first story in the book is the weakest. Keep going. There are some gems in here.
"The Harp"

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