Off the Shelf: The Chronicles of Harris Burdick

I intended this post for Monday, but I was being a good citizen: jury duty! Long story short, I got selected and sworn in! Hopefully I won’t be too neglectful of blogging this week. I’ve got lots to show you!

Without further ado, here’s a long overdue Off the Shelf post.

I can’t believe that I knew about The Polar Express and Jumanji growing up, but I never knew about Harris Burdick. This 1984 book, written by the wonderful Chris Van Allsburg is just as mysterious and thrilling as Polar and Jumanji but much darker.


The premise of the book is this: Harris Burdick is a talented author, but he’s also somewhat of a phantom. Nobody knows who or where he is. All we have are 14 compelling illustrations with short, enigmatic captions that go along with them. Supposedly, there are stories that accompany the drawings, but they have never surfaced. They’ve been lost, or they’re with Burdick, wherever he is.

For example, here’s one of the illustrations.


The title of the illustration is called “Under the Rug,” and the caption is “Two weeks passed and it happened again.”

Of course, Burdick is a figment of Van Allsburg’s imagination, but it’s fun to think he’s really out there somewhere. The original book simply consists of the illustrations and the corresponding captions. Elementary school teachers across the country still give creative writing assignments in which kids have to compose stories to go along with the strange captions. Click here to read some of them.

Just a few years ago in 2011, they released a new edition of the book in which famous authors like Stephen King, Louis Sachar, and Lowis Lowry wrote stories to explain the illustrations and puzzling captions. Here’s the table of contents just to get you drooling a bit.


And here are some of the illustrations, along with their captions.

This one is called “Another Place, Another Time.” The caption reads “If there was an answer, he’d find it there.”


This one is called “Uninvited Guests” and the caption is “His heart was pounding. He was sure he had seen the doorknob turn.”


Here’s one where you have to look closer at the details in order to appreciate the scene. You almost don’t notice the harp and the figure rounding the bend. Title is simply “The Harp” and the caption: “So it’s true, he thought, it’s really true.


“Mr. Linden’s Library.” “He had warned her about the book. Now it was too late.” (Creepy, huh?)


This one is even creepier. “The Seven Chairs.” “The fifth one ended up in France.”


Here’s another one that seems totally normal until you notice one very abnormal detail. Can you see it? It’s called “The Third Floor Bedroom” and the caption reads “It all began when someone left the window open.”


“Just Desert.” Love the multiple interpretations (punny and otherwise) the title can take. “She lowered the knife and it grew even brighter.”


“Oscar and Alphonse.” “She knew it was time to send them back. The caterpillars softly wiggled in her hand, spelling out ‘goodbye.'” Just look at the exquisite craftsmanship here. The girl’s face, clothing, hair, eyelashes are exquisite. Van Allsburg chose to write on this one himself, so if there’s one story that gets closest to the “real” Burdick, this one is probably it.


Here’s where Van Allsburg brings on the drama! “The House on Maple Street.” “It was a perfect lift-off.” Stephen King actually included this one in his collection of short stories called “Nightmares and Dreamscapes.”


Honestly, I think there are a lot of fairy tale elements in Van Allsburg’s stuff—darker fairy tale elements, I should say. Mystery, shadow, unknown, magical. It is captivating and fanciful, but at the same time it rings true to life, which is weird because everything is so fantastical.


Which traditional fairy tale do you think rings truest to life?


6 thoughts on “Off the Shelf: The Chronicles of Harris Burdick

  1. We had to do a writing assignment at school on these topics. We were to choose one, and create a short story about it which needed to include the caption and picture. I chose “Mr. linden’s Library”. I think that it is a really cool way of getting to write something based off of a picture.

  2. Pingback: Book Review: “The Chronicles of Harris Burdick” | The Cheap Reader

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