The Mysteries of Harris Burdick is a captivating and original book which I have used for writing exercises with adults and children. This picture book, by the American author Chris Van Allsburg, consists of a series of mysterious and haunting images, each one accompanied by a title and suggestive caption. I find it impossible to look at them without beginning to immediately start conjuring up stories.
It’s easy to find the images from the book on the internet and the Houghton Mifflin Books website has quite a few children's stories inspired by the book and details about a collection of short stories by outstanding authors – again, all inspired by The Mysteries of Harris Burdick – which is due to be published in October 2011.
The Mysteries of Harris Burdick begins with a letter from the author providing a fictional(?) explanation of how he came across the pictures of Harris Burdick through a friend, Peter Wenders. The explanation details how, Burdick presented the pictures with their titles and captions to Wenders in hopes that Wenders would be interested in purchasing the stories that accompanied the illustrations. Wenders was intrigued by the pictures and asked Burdick to submit the corresponding stories the next day. However, Wenders never heard from Harris Burdick again, so the "true" stories behind the pictures were never revealed, which invites us, as readers, to start providing our own versions.
Following this ‘letter’, are the fourteen illustrations, such as these:
This drawing of a boy fast asleep in his bedroom with five small, round lights hovering in the air above him has the title "Archie Smith, Boy Wonder" and the caption "A tiny voice asked, 'Is he the one?”
The strange illustration of a nun levitating through an abbey on a chair has the title, ‘The Seven Chairs’ and the caption, ‘The fifth one ended up in France’.
The following is writing is my own, inspired by the picture from "The Third-Floor Bedroom", which has the caption - "It all began when someone left the window open," and shows a room that looks completely normal but for the wallpaper bird that seems to be coming to life and flying off the wall.
It began when someone left the window open. I thought at first that it was just the wind. Then it dawned on me that a light breeze couldn’t possibly cause the wing on one of the doves on the wallpaper to flap so.
As I watched the fluttering white slap back to the wall, only to peel away once more, it dawned on me that there should be another dove near the loose piece of paper. The green background and the surrounding leaves and roses were there, but there was a definite dove sized gap in the otherwise regular pattern.
Hearing cooing outside, I walked closer to the window. On the ledge a snow white paper dove was pecking unsuccessfully at a scrap of chickweed growing from a crack in the stonework. Rather than reeling back in surprise at the sight of the live wallpaper dove, the actual thoughts which sped through my brain were mostly concerned with the logistical problems a two-dimensional bird might face when attempting to feed.
The flapping behind me increased in volume and was accompanied by a sound like a thousand flautists tuning up. I turned to witness a flurry of white gliding towards me.
Like the first petals floating on a May breeze, the doves, now free and without a care, soared over my head and escaped through the open casement.
It was a wondrous sight.
They rose towards the purple evening in a smooth ascent and I gazed after them until they were confetti heading towards the horizon, keeping pace with the setting sun.
Even now, years later, I sit in my rocking chair in front of the fading green wallpaper, with its empty leaves and roses, and imaging my missing doves are still out there somewhere – tiny apostles of peace.