Flashback Friday: Two weeks passed and it happened again . . .

Life is getting away from me here, trying to get back on track, with this very late Flashback Friday post! So, you want to be a writer?  Have you looked for inspiration only to come up dry and lost?  Maybe . . . you just need the right creative spark.  An image . . . a title . . . a strange quotations.  Perhaps the avalanch of stories will start from there.


Do you remember:

The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, c1984)

Oh, Chris Van Allsburg.  You peppered my childhood with fascinating books that my mother sometimes read once then frowned at and avoided reading again. (I’d sneak them out later and reread them).  You made me realize that black and white don’t have to be boring and that something fantastic can creep into the most mundane of scenes.  But most significantly, you sparked this girl to write.

It was sixth grade, my English teach Mrs. Nepo was trying to coax us all into creative writing.  To that end she brought in this curious book for us to look at.  This . . . isn’t your usual picture book.  You can’t sit down with it and read it aloud to your kids the way you might a  story.  It’s full of stories . . . but most of them you have to tell yourself.  I’ll backtrack a little.  The story Chris Van Allsburg creates at the very front of this book is that the stuff in it is the work of a mysterious figure named Harris Burdick.   The story goes that Mr. Burdick dropped off a collection of drawings at the publisher for them to look at.  Each image came with a title and a single sentence from the story.  Mr. Burdick dropped them off and then vanished before bringing in the complete tales–leaving the publisher with only the fragments.  As fictions go, this is a pretty wild one!


This is the image for The House on Maple Street the line that goes with it: “It was a perfect take-off”

The picture book is full of the pencil sketched surreal images on one side with the title and quote on the other.  So what on Earth was Chris Van Allsburg thinking?  Who was going to enjoy a book of puzzle pieces missing the rest of their story puzzles?  Turns out, a lot of us.  This is a writer’s book.  Or more to the point a book that creates writers and storytellers.  And that’s where my sixth grade English teacher comes in.  She tasked us with taking one of those fragments and writing our own story.  Well, it sort of opened the floodgate in my mind of –hey, I can write all this stuff down! And wound up writing a twelve page (handwritten) story entitled “Where Did all the Unicorns Go?”  It not only got me a perfect grade, it started me realizing I didn’t have to have a writing assignment to write my stories.  I have over a hundred notebooks full of scribbled writing from those years.  And I still write today.

Turns out I’m not the only one that was inspired.  The story goes that Stephen King wrote a short story based on “The House on Maple Street” image from this picture book.  Hundreds of writers, readers and English class kids working on their creative writing have encountered this book and drawn on it, creating their own stories out of the teasers.  Just a few years ago, a collection of well-known authors got together and created an anthology of stories–each one based on one of the picture book images.

The Chronicles of Harris Burdick: 14 Amazing Authors Tell the Tales by Chris Van Allsburg (HMH, c2011)

But what so incredible about this book is that it’s not just for kids, it’s not for any one age group or decade or interest.  It’s a writer’s tool kit sitting right there–it’s a discussion starter, a story teller.  Just browsing online, kids are still using this to create new stories of their own.  And all I can think is that Chris Van Allsburg is all kinds of brilliant.  If you’ve never seen this book, I sincerely recommend you find a copy to peruse.  I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

Comments welcome!


About Stephanie Whelan

I'm a children's librarian with a life-long love of all things science fiction and fantasy.

Posted on March 3, 2015, in Flashback Fridays and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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