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Originally published Sunday, November 6, 2011 at 2:00 PM

Harris Burdick fans write new tales for drawings

Kids' books: "The Mysteries of Harris Burdick" has inspired popular children's and teen authors to write stories for each illustration. Their efforts, plus the original illustrations, have been gathered in a hugely entertaining new volume, "The Chronicles of Harris Burdick" (Houghton Mifflin, ages 10 up — even adults will be fascinated).

Scripps Howard News Service

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Corner Books: Van Allsburg's 'Harris Burdick' taps talent

More than a quarter-century ago, Caldecott medalist Chris Van Allsburg published one of the most intriguing and provocative books in the history of children's literature.

"The Mysteries of Harris Burdick" contains 14 charcoal-pencil illustrations, each with a title and a caption. Each illustration is tantalizingly enigmatic, made all the more so by the weirdly off-kilter titles and captions.

Van Allsburg, who won the top children's illustration award for both "The Polar Express" and "Jumanji," is of course the actual author and artist of "Mysteries." But, in the introduction, Van Allsburg plays with the reader's imagination by pretending that he acquired the drawings from a friend named Peter Wenders, who supposedly was given them by a man named Harris Burdick.

Although Burdick promised to return to Wenders' office with the stories that accompany the illustrations, he never did, Van Allsburg writes. So the mystery of exactly what the illustrations, titles and captions meant has never been solved. But Van Allsburg says he believed the illustrations would spark many readers' imaginations and inspire them to write their own stories.

And so they have. Since its 1984 publication, "The Mysteries of Harris Burdick" has become a classroom cult classic, with teachers using the book as an exercise to motivate students to create stories for the illustrations. Many thousands of other readers have been inspired to do the same thing just for the fun of it.

Now, a group of popular children's and teen authors has taken on the challenge of writing stories to team with each illustration. Their efforts, plus the original illustrations, have been gathered in a hugely entertaining new volume, "The Chronicles of Harris Burdick" (Houghton Mifflin, $24.99, ages 10 up — even adults will be fascinated).

The stories in this 200-page book range from hilarious (Jon Scieszka's tale for "Under the Rug") to fantastical (Linda Sue Park's take on "The Harp") to rather disturbing (Jules Feiffer's story for "Uninvited Guests"). The book spotlights a wide variety of writing styles, which is not surprising when you look at the list of authors: Cory Doctorow, Sherman Alexie, Walter Dean Myers and Newbery medalists Kate DiCamillo, Louis Sachar and Lois Lowry.

Yet everything combines to create a book of unforgettable short stories. What's particularly fascinating is how each writer finds a way to fit the assigned caption into their story. Most interesting, however, is the way that each author creates a story around the beautifully rendered, but decidedly odd, artwork.

The cover illustration, for example, shows a massive ocean liner knocking over a building as it begins to muscle its way through one of Venice's famed — and narrow — canals. The story title reads "Missing in Venice" and the caption states: "Even with her mighty engines in reverse, the ocean liner was puller farther and farther into the canal."

In response, author Gregory Maguire offers a story about an orphaned boy named Linus who is visiting Venice with his hostile stepmother and her lawyer as they deal with the red tape surrounding jewels once owned by Linus' grandmother. Wandering by himself around the Venice walkways, Linus encounters an old lady who is actually a magician, and together they are able to provide a happy ending, via an ocean liner, for all concerned — except for the lawyer, who turns out to be a thief.

Van Allsburg himself provides a charmingly offbeat story to team with an illustration showing of a girl holding two caterpillars. The story title is "Oscar and Alphonse," and the caption reads: "She knew it was time to send them back. The caterpillars softly wiggled in her hand, spelling out 'goodbye.' "

The final story, "The House on Maple Street," actually was written years ago by an adult author, Stephen King, in response to the last illustration in "The Mysteries of Harris Burdick." But it fits in perfectly here, as King — working with an illustration of a house whose foundation is eerily lit and surrounded by clouds — tells the chilling tale of four children who discover that their house is getting ready to blast off into space.

The mysterious Lemony Snicket, author of the best-selling "Series of Unfortunate Events," provides the perfect introduction to "The Chronicles of Harris Burdick, "arguing that he believes the stories in the volume actually are the work of Harris Burdick himself, and "given by Burdick to the various authors who are now pretending to have written them."

Yet, as Snicket writes, it really doesn't matter. For the main thing is that, as a reader, "you will find yourself in a mystery that joins so many authors and readers together in breathless wonder."

Karen MacPherson, the children's/teen librarian at the Takoma Park, Md., Library, can be reached at Kam.Macpherson@gmail.com.

Video: Lemony Snicket tries to unravel the mysteries behind "The Chronicles of Harris Burdick" at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M3kpYep7EQw.

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