Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Mysteries of Harris Burdick

You already know Chris Van Allsburg's art and prose from Jumanji, Zathura, The Polar Express and several other gorgeous children's books.   His illustrations are full of wonder and possibility.   The Mysteries of Harris Burdick was published in 1984, but I had not seen it until my pal, Willie Thornton, recommended that I hunt it down a couple years back.   Better yet, check out an entire site based on the book .
In this book, each of Allsburg's exquisite one page black and white illustrations is titled and paired with one simple line.   For example, in the picture "Under the Rug" a man holds a dining room chair over his head poised to smash a lump beneath his living room carpet.   The caption is, "Two weeks passed and it happened again."

Now, there is a portfolio version of the book available.   You get the captioned artwork on large sheets to hang in your classroom.   Yes!

Make the book fit your students' needs, but let me tell you how I use it.   I read the whole book aloud to the class, but I choose six of the pictures that I think kids have a good chance at tackling.   I number the pictures.   A student comes up and rolls the die to see which prompt the class will receive.   It's a nice touch to add more mystery to this assignment in keeping with the mood of the book.   Students may use the caption to either start or end their tale.

Selfishly, for this activity I relish reading 25 interpretations of the same piece of art.   Generously, I allow students to write a second story on the picture of their choice.

The Chronicles of Harris Burdick: Fourteen Amazing Authors Tell the Tales comes out right before Halloween.   Oooooooooo.    Scary.   I mean it.   Please, don't show this book to your precious writers until after they've written their stories.   There's nothing worse than an expert intruding on your creative head space and tap dancing all over your vulnerabilities while you are trying to call up your own magic.

If you are an art teacher, it could be fun to work this activity backwards with your students.   Keep the book hidden, give students the titles and captions and see what they create before revealing Van Allsburg's interpretation.

Thank you to Christopher Newport University's Teacher Preparation Program for donating a copy of the portfolio edition to my new classroom!


  1. So I love Van Allsburg and use his THE WRETCHED STONE in my classes each semester. Now I have another way to use one of his books. How cool is that?

  2. Tell me about that book, Susan. I would have asked earlier, but I couldn't figure out how to comment on my own blog! Apparently it does not like the "stay signed in" option.