The Chronic–WHAT?–cles of Harris Burdick

Growing up, my brother and I were both obsessed with Chris Van Allsburg. The Mysteries of Harris Burdick was a favorite, as it is for so many kids beloved of their imaginations. A collection of magical images dropped off at a publisher by the mysterious Harris Burdick (so the legend goes), each with only a title and caption. The stories would come later, Burdick promised, but he never returned.

Twenty-five (or so) years later, the top authors in the business tell those stories in The Chronicles of Harris Burdick. A week ago I attended a Harvard Bookstore event at the Brattle Theater: Chris Van Allsburg himself, Lois Lowry (one of the contributors, and a local gal), the book’s editor, and moderator/Horn Book editor/professional curmudgeon Roger Sutton.

It was delightful. Some tidbits:

They stuck to the mythology admirably the whole night. “When Harris Burdick dropped off the pictures” this and “Lemony Snicket claims that Burdick sent these stories to the authors in secret” that. Never a snicker or wink from Van Allsburg.

Hollywood’s original Jumanji sequel idea? Jumanji in the White House. “The President discovers the Jumanji game while visiting in France.” Van Allsburg had to come up with a better idea fast to prevent this travesty from seeing the light of film. Hence, Zathura — a game comes to life in space. (Which, while undoubtedly a better idea, may or may not have been a better film. I didn’t see it.)

To avoid fights, the editor called each author in order to pick a picture. She “got very few nos” from the authors she called. (Which is pretty impressive, since we’re talking about a list that includes Stephen King, Sherman Alexie, Jules Feiffer, Lois Lowry, and on and on.) But some folks were stuck with only a couple of pictures to choose from. When asked who had no choice at the end, the editor said, “That would be you, Chris.” (The least-loved picture? “Oscar and Alphonse,” the caterpillars who spell goodbye in the girl’s hand. It was never my favorite, either. I would have picked “The Third Floor Bedroom.” “It all began when someone left the window open…”)

The most interesting question was the one no one in my world can shut up about these days: what will become of us (writers, publishers, librarians, readers) in this digital age?

Roger: “This seems a very print-dependent book.” (Not sure I agree with that, actually, though in its print form it is quite beautiful — the formatting is pretty straightforward, and I think the images would look fine on an iPad.)

CVA: For text, he said he’s fine with digital, especially for large, heavy books. “But the book as an artistic object can’t exist” digitally, because the publisher’s choices about size, paper, and font are all made by the device manufacturer. As an illustrator, for instance, he can’t think about large double-page spreads for a book that will be published digitally. LL agreed.

Roger: “The activity is reading the iPad, not reading the book.” (I think that’s a good way of putting it. The iPad does so many other things that it’s tempting to take a break between chapters… or paragraphs… to check email or whatever.) He and LL both said they don’t go back to books that don’t grab them right away, because there are so many other things sitting on their Kindles to be read. It, like so much digital information consumption, promotes flitting about rather than focus.

CVA: Reading on glowing screens is not relaxing, biologically; it doesn’t work for bedtime reading, especially with children. (And this is one of the reasons I got a Kindle rather than a color device. Though I still read on paper, mostly.)

I’ve only read the first story so far (Tabitha King’s, which was fine, if not stunning). I’ll post a full review when I’ve finished it. So much of the magic lay in imagining the story lurking behind the image and words that I wonder whether reading these stories will ruin it a bit. Sure, they’re just one author’s imagination (unless you believe Lemony Snicket, of course), and mine is just as valid… but it’s hard not to see these as the “official” versions. (Besides, it’s not like I ever had a firm vision of what happened in any story; each one felt more like a dream I couldn’t quite hold on to.) Anyway, I look forward to diving in!

(If you have no idea what my title is referencing, it’s this. You’re welcome.)

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2 Responses to The Chronic–WHAT?–cles of Harris Burdick

  1. BP Acorn says:

    What is the picture called with the third floor and what is the sentence that goes with it.

  2. Martini-Corona says:

    Ha — I always LIKED Oscar and Alphonse. Maybe because I assumed they were actually super-intelligent alien beings. But I think the one that sticks with me is _Under the Rug_. I believe (from memory) that the caption was the awesomely ominous “Six weeks passed, and it happened again.”

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