In Praise of The Mysteries of Harris Burdick

Choir praise

Sunday Praise is a new feature here at 746 Books where I will be chatting about books and bookish things that I love that are not in the 746, just to give myself (and you all!) a little break from that slow, yet steady, countdown!

I’m kicking off my first Sunday Praise, with my favourite picture book The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg.


The Mysteries of Harris Burdick is no ordinary picture book and it is not necessarily a children’s book either. The mysteries included as are much about the pictures themselves as they are about the nature of the book as a whole. Chris Van Allsburg, writer of the Polar Express and Jumanji, has used his considerable artistic skill to create a spine-tingling series of drawings that unlock the creativity and imagination of the reader. Published in 1984, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick has beguiled and bewitched readers ever since.

This fascinating book opens with an introduction from Van Allsburg himself, relegating himself from author to bystander and setting up the first and most important of the Harris Burdick mysteries. He describes seeing the drawings at the home of a children’s book publisher and asking about the artist.  The publisher, Wenders, explains that a man named Mr Burdick called to his office thirty years previously.

Mr Burdick explained that he had written fourteen stories and had drawn many pictures for each one. He’d brought with him just one drawing from each story, to see if Wenders liked his work.

Fascinated by the images, Wenders asks Burdick to return as soon as possible with the accompanying stories,

The artist agrees to bring the stories the next morning. He left the fourteen drawings with Wenders. But he did not return the next day. Or the day after that. Harris Burdick was never heard from again. Over the years, Wenders had tried to find out who Burdick was and what had happened to him, but he discovered nothing. To this day Harris Burdick remains a complete mystery.

With  this introduction Van Allsburg asks the reader to complete the stores for these fourteen haunting and mesmerising images, each having only  a title and a caption. Each title offers up just enough information to pique the interest and spark the imagination. Each caption is suggestive yet mysterious – a starting point from where you can go almost anywhere. Each image is dreamlike and beautifully rendered.

Archie 2
Archie Smith, Boy Wonder

In ‘ARCHIE SMITH, BOY WONDER’ a small boy lies asleep in bed, while small orbs of light float in his window. The caption reads

 A tiny voice asked, ‘Is he the one’?

In THE SEVEN CHAIRS, two bishops in a cathedral gaze up at a nun, suspended in mid air on a chair, tantalisingly we are told

 The fifth one ended up in France.

Not only do we not know the rest of the stories, but we don’t know where in the stories these images appear. So, in OSCAR AND ALPHONSE, which has an image of a young girl looking sadly at something in her hand, the caption gives us the sense of an ending, but what leads up to this point?

 She knew it was time to send them back. The caterpillars softly wiggled in her hand, spelling out goodbye

Beginning, middle or end, each of these drawings is the compass point for whatever we, the reader, want them to be.

The Seven Chairs
The Seven Chairs

The stories that you imagine to go along with these images will say as much about yourself as they does about the images. The drawings  are fluctuating and captivating, often filled with a sense of malevolence depending on how you chose to interpret them. As a woman brings a knife down on a glowing pumpkin in JUST DESERT, we have to determine the mood for ourselves. Is the light emanating from the pumpkin evil or benevolent? Is the woman scared or mesmerised? Or both? The decision is ours to make. No interpretation is wrong.

Just Desert
Just Desert

There is wistfulness and a sense of melancholy to a lot of the drawings. Van Allsburg is a skilled draughtsman and his particular attention to chiaroscuro creates a sense of both naturalism and otherworldliness combined.

A Strange Day in July
A Strange Day in July

The sunlight dappling on the water in A STRANGE DAY IN JULY is beautifully illustrated and evokes a long summer’s day in childhood spent skimming stones. This is immediately contrasted with the caption that unsettles such a recognisable scene,

 He threw with all his might, but the third stone came skipping back

The House on Maple Street
The House on Maple Street

As a means to encourage children to use their imagination, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick is perfect. But it is not just children who can be inspired. Stephen King has written a short story based on THE HOUSE ON MAPLE STREET, extrapolating a tale from the image of a house raising off the ground like a rocket and the caption that reads

It was a perfect lift off.

Animators and musicians have also been inspired and there is even a website where you can submit your version of one of the fourteen stories. Twenty-five years after the original book appeared, The Chronicles of Harris Burdick was published, containing stories written by well-known children’s authors taking inspiration from the drawings in the original book and introduced by Lemony Snicket.

For me though, my favourite part of The Mysteries of Harris Burdick is imagining the story of Burdick himself. Who was this man who drew wonderful pictures with tantalising stories and who failed to show up when success was within reach? And what of the stories? What tales of adventure, horror, beauty and friendship had he dreamed up to go along with his drawings? Of all Van Allsburg’s creations, his is the one story in the whole book that I like to imagine the most.

Have you read The Mysteries of Harris Burdick? If so, which is your favourite of the fourteen? I’d love to hear from you.

Sunday Praise

Cathy746books View All →

I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

26 Comments Leave a comment

  1. As someone who likes to come up with creepy and downright dark stories, I forced myself to think of lighthearted ones while looking at these pictures. It was a nice inversion for me.

    Lovely post and those are some amazing drawings, A STRANGE DAY IN JULY almost looks like a photograph!


  2. I’ve never heard of this one, either, but it makes me think of the beautiful illustrations in The Invention of Hugo Cabret.
    Also, The Snowman. That was one of my favourites when I was little.


  3. I fell in love with Van Allsburg’s illustrations in his A Kingdom Far and Clear trilogy, but I haven’t come across this one. It looks amazing – thanks for highlighting it. As you say, this would be great for kids, but equally so for adults. The drawings you’ve selected are a real inspiration to even creaky imaginations like mine…

    Liked by 1 person

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