Chris Van Allsburg,
The Chronicles of Harris Burdick:
14 Amazing Authors Tell the Tales

(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011)

I came across Chris Van Allsburg's The Mysteries of Harris Burdick as a young adult and fell in love. The surreal black-and-white illustrations and brief lines of evocative text hint at fantastic stories that are just out of reach.

Part of the fun is, of course, thinking of your own stories. But I really think that most of the appeal is in not knowing the full story -- but being able to imagine that it is splendid.

Telling stories that live up to imaginary ones is a daunting task, and perhaps inevitably, The Chronicles of Harris Burdick falls short. It's not for want of talent: the lineup of 14 all-star authors includes Gregory Maguire, Kate DiCamillo, Lois Lowry, Stephen King, Louis Sachar and Jon Scieszka. Lemony Snicket, still in his Series of Unfortunate Events persona, introduces the project and the stories. But simply by adding concrete details, beginnings and ends, the authors lose some of that sense of wonder so evident in Mysteries.

The 14 stories are perfectly readable, if a little uneven. My favorites include Scieszka's "Under the Rug," which reads like his fractured fairy-tale picture books: terse, a little macabre and quite funny. I also enjoyed Jules Feiffer's "Uninvited Guests," with its deranged main character and existential twist, although I can't imagine that younger readers would get much out of this one. Van Allsburg's own contribution, "Oscar & Alphonse," strikes the perfect balance between whimsy and bittersweetness.

Some of the stories are a bit peculiar. Sherman Alexie is a hugely talented writer who spins a memorable tale in "A Strange Day in July," but it doesn't match the sunny innocence of the illustration it accompanies. Lowry's "The Seven Chairs" struck me as having an odd sexual undertone, and King's "The House on Maple Street," with which the collection ends, is actually distasteful.

The other stories range from mildly entertaining to disappointingly mundane. A few feel a little forced.

The stories are all over the place in terms of tone and setting -- creepy, sweet, snide, heart-warming, grotesque -- and I don't think they're all appropriate for young readers. The Chronicles of Harris Burdick is an interesting collection of stories, but it is essentially a companion book to a much more powerful and lasting work.

book review by
Jennifer Mo

26 November 2011

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