Mysterious children's book gets new stories from a star-studded cast of authors

Chris Van Allsburg's "The Chronicles of Harris Burdick" now has accompanying stories by Stephen King, Sherman Alexie, and others.

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    The original 1984 edition of Chris Van Allsburg's "The Chronicles of Harris Burdick" contain illustrations, page titles, and captions – but no text.
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Everyone who’s read Chris Van Allsburg’s “The Chronicles of Harris Burdick” has made up stories in his or her head to go along with the strange pictures and single-line captions that accompany them.

And now, famous authors are sharing the stories they’ve created: writers such as Stephen King, Sherman Alexie, Lois Lowry, Gregory Maguire, Kate DiCamillo, and many others have written stories to accompany the pictures in Allsburg’s book. Illustrations include a nun floating in a chair in mid-air with a caption reading “The fifth one ended up in France”; a harp near a river with a caption of “So it’s true, he thought, it’s really true"; and an open window in a room decorated with bird-covered wallpaper that has a caption reading “It all began when someone left the window open.”

“The Chronicles of Harris Burdick” was first published in 1984, with a mysterious introduction by Van Allsburg that says a man named Harris Burdick dropped off these illustrations, the titles of the pages, and their captions at the home of Peter Wenders, a publisher of children’s books. Burdick, according to Van Allsburg (who created the book’s fictional premise), promised to return the next day with the text to accompany the illustrations – but never came back.

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Van Allsburg told Publishers Weekly that he’s received stories to accompany the illustrations from thousands of children.

“I had hoped that people would look at the pictures and appreciate their strangeness, and that a small part of the audience might feel compelled to solve their mysteries," he says. "But a very large part of the audience responded that way, and that’s gratifying.”

The new version of the book, which will be released Oct. 25, includes a story by Van Allsburg as well as the stories by other authors, who were each given the opportunity to choose an illustration to write about. (Van Allsburg wrote about the illustration that was left over.)

The new “Chronicles” also includes an introduction by Lemony Snicket, the author of "A Series of Unfortunate Events," who posits the all-in-fun theory that the authors who wrote these stories for the book were actually given the stories by Burdick and are just pretending to have written them.

“It was always my hope that the rest of Mr. Burdick’s work would surface,” Snicket writes in his introduction. “This book, then, is suspicious.”

Snicket says he questioned each author about his theory and found that their reactions only confirmed this idea.

“Jon Scieszka told me that he would be happy to answer my questions, and to please come in and have some ice cream, and then after a long pause he fled through the window and left me alone and it turned out to be sherbet,” Snicket writes.

The authors’ stories range in length and include a story by Alexie about two cruel twins; Gregory Maguire’s story of a child lost in Venice; and a story about a man who sees the characters he’s created for children’s books, written by Jules Feiffer. Each story includes the strange caption that first accompanied the picture somewhere in the text.

DiCamillo told Publisher’s Weekly she found it odd at first to write from an illustration rather than the other way around.

“Writing about an existing piece of art felt like taking a bath with my socks on,” DiCamillo said. “Something seemed just a little bit off.”

Author Louis Sachar told Publisher’s Weekly he was immediately drawn to the illustration he chose, of a boy standing with a man who is swinging a lantern back and forth and a ship coming through mist in front of them.

“I guess it was the mystery of it that appealed to me… and also the tender relationship between the boy and the man,” he said.

He hopes those who read the new version of “The Chronicles of Harris Burdick” will “take it as further inspiration to write their own stories,” Sachar said.

Molly Driscoll is a Monitor contributor.

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