November 03, 2011


The Chronicles of Harris Burdick: 14 Amazing Authors Tell the Tales. By Chris Van Allsburg. Houghton Mifflin. $24.99.

Moving House. By Mark Siegel. Roaring Brook Press. $16.99.

     Chris Van Allsburg has done some amazing things. Two-time winner of the Caldecott Medal (for Jumanji and The Polar Express, both of which were made into movies), he is also the creator of The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, the best modern inspirer of creative writing for young people – and, it now turns out, a darn good inspiration for famous and successful adult authors, too. The 1984 book was a mystery that could not be solved: 14 enigmatic illustrations, each with a title and brief caption, but with no stories to go with them and no way of finding out what the stories were supposed to be (because the author-illustrator had mysteriously disappeared right after dropping off the pictures with a potential publisher). There are tales within tales in The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, since that possible publisher was himself a fictional character – thus, the book involved a fictional publisher getting fictional illustrations from fictional stories that may or may not have been written by a fictional author-illustrator who mysteriously vanished into thin air, leaving it to reader to imagine or write their own tales. A wonderful concept – and one now taken a big step further in The Chronicles of Harris Burdick, to which Chris Van Allsburg himself contributes one story, with such luminaries as Stephen King, M.T. Anderson, Walter Dean Myers, Lois Lowry, Cory Doctorow and Jon Scieszka contributing others. Indeed, every author here is well-known – the others are Jules Feiffer, Sherman Alexie, Linda Sue Park, Kate DiCamillo, Louis Sachar, Tabitha King and Gregory McGuire. And the book’s introduction is by Lemony Snicket. It would spoil the fun (and the chills, for there are some of those) to say too much about the stories themselves; suffice it to say that each author takes his or her assignment to write about one of the original often-surrealistic illustrations quite seriously, and every story fits its illustration and caption very well – although (and this is the charm of the whole Harris Burdick conceit) there are many, many other possible ways to write about the very same pictures. Those pictures have retained all their charm and oddity. In one, a man raises a chair above his head as if to hit a lump beneath the carpeting, with the title “Under the Rug” and the caption, “Two weeks passed and it happened again.” In another, four people ride along railroad tracks in an open cart pulled along by a billowing sail, with only mist in the distance, with the title “Another Place, Another Time,” and the caption, “If there was an answer, he’d find it there.” In yet another, a frightened-looking woman stands with knife poised above a glowing pumpkin, with the title, “Just Desert” and the caption, “She lowered the knife and it grew even brighter.” These are wonderfully evocative visual images, ranging from the beautiful to the ambivalent to the genuinely spooky, and The Chronicles of Harris Burdick does every one of them proud through short, very well-written interpretative stories that will – and should – have young readers and adults alike talking about their own ideas of what the illustrations really mean. And what they really mean is, of course, that ideas are gateways to the infinite recesses of the imagination. The Chronicles of Harris Burdick is a remarkable book and a thoroughly wonderful one.

     Mark Siegel’s Moving House is not at this level – few books for young readers are – but its gently told and delightfully illustrated story partakes of surrealism just as surely as does Chris Van Allsburg’s. Siegel’s title is intended to be read two ways – as “we are moving to a new house” and “the house is moving.” The latter reading turns out to make the former unnecessary; that is the entire plot. But the way the plot unfolds is what makes this book so special. Little Joey and Chloe, two of the widest-eyed children to be found anywhere this side of Disney animation, love their house, but they and their parents do not love living in Foggytown, where people constantly bump into things and no one can see the stars. So it is time to pack up and move house to somewhere clearer than Number Seven Carriage Street. But the house itself has other ideas – or rather the same idea. It turns out that love goes both ways: the kids love the house, and it loves them back. So in the middle of the night, “Joey and Chloe’s room tilted, the house wriggled and jiggled and everything went whoa this way and whoa that way” as the house picks itself up and starts to wander. In illustrations reminiscent of a famous Winsor McKay Little Nemo in Slumberland sequence, the house grows legs and arms and stretches, yawns and trots off, explaining along the way that it does not want Joey and Chloe to leave it. They do not want to leave it either – so the house, the kids and the entire town get together to come up with a solution. In addition to McKay’s influence, Siegel has clearly absorbed elements of comic books and cartooning (notably in a scene where numerous houses huddling in the fog all open their window-eyes wide). Clever use of color and perspective make Moving House as much fun to see as to read – even more fun, actually, since the one slightly sour note here is a textual reference to the stars being visible “before the factory,” an environmental dig that unnecessarily mars the otherwise beautifully handled dreamscape of the story. This is a minor jarring note, though, in a book that otherwise mixes charm, surprise and all sorts of enjoyment into a surrealistically delightful soufflĂ©.

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