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Curiouser and curiouser
on November 23, 2004
Picture books have a wide range of purposes in this world. They can teach and inform. They can amuse and entertain. Sometimes, though, I think that the most impressive picture books are the ones that inspire. And not in a gosh-doesn't-that-drawing-of-a-sunset-make-you-want-to-draw-a-sunset-too type mentality. I mean true inspiration. The kind you might find, for example, in Chris Van Allsburg's incredibly entertaining and mysterious picture book, "The Mysteries of Harris Burdick". I can think of no other source in this world better able to inspire children to write their own highly interesting stories. "The Mysteries of Harris Burdick" has been used for years as a uniquely original source for stirring up potential tales in the minds of kids everywhere. More importantly, though, it's just a darn good book. Darn good!
Few books for small children actively encourage you to read a long wordy Introduction to them first. This is one of the few. Before we see any of the pictures we are told a tale of one Mr. Wenders and one Mr. Burdick. Mr. Wenders was once a children's book publisher. As he was sitting in his office one day a Mr. Harris Burdick arrived with fourteen illustrations. It seems that Mr. Burdick had written fourteen stories and he had brought an illustration from each of these for the perusal of Mr. Wenders. After dropping off the pictures (each with its own title and line from the book it belonged to) he left and was never seen again. This book is a presentation of those mysterious images, all suggesting that they belong to magical stories of their own. The introductory story, I should probably point out, is utterly false. But it gives some nice context to the images that follow and hopefully kids will still dig them.
If you've ever read "Jumanji" or "Polar Express" then you are familiar with Van Allsburg's style of mysterious eerily realistic drawings. All pictures in this particular book are in black and white, but they each seem just a little too real to be completely fantastical. Some pictures are sublime. There's an especially amusing one that displays a nun flying above two men in what looks to be a cathedral. The title of the print is, "The Seven Chairs" and the accompanying quote reads, "The fifth one ended up in France". Other pictures in the book vary in creepiness and wonder. There's a picture of a man attempting to beat something large under his carpet with a nearby chair. Another illustration a house lifting off into space. Another shows a woman lowering a knife to a pumpkin as it glows like a brightly lit luminary.
The advantage of this book is that as kids page through it, they feel the need to tell the rest of the stories they see presented here. If a kid looks at the picture of a boy being abducted by a ship's captain they may wish to write a tale of adventure and derring-do on the high seas. Consequently, each tale told here can be interpreted a variety of different ways. I don't want to make this book sound as if it's sole purpose is as a method of teaching writing exercises. I just want to point out that it's so lovely a collection of images that I think anyone that reads it will be pleased by what they see. Pleased to the point of extravagant imaginings, in some cases.
Every Chris Van Allsburg book contains some sort of deeply mysterious tone to it. He's the kind of illustrator that causes great love and adoration in his fans. "The Mysteries of Harris Burdick" is not your normal run-of-the-mill type picture book. And if you're looking for something to read your five-year-old to sleep with, look elsewhere. You will not find anything here that will interest them. What you will find instead is a book like no other. One of my favorite picture books, even at the grand old age of 26.