The mysteries of Harris Burdick

“The Mysteries of Harris Burdick”

Introduction to the PORTFOLIO EDITION

(by Chris Van Allsburg)

 In 1984, I wrote the following as an introduction to The Mysteries of Harris Budick.

“I first saw the drawings in this book a year ago, in the home of a man named Peter Wenders. Though Mr. Wenders is retired now, he once worked for a children’s book publisher, choosing the stories and pictures that would be turned into books.

Thirty years ago a man called at Peter Wenders’s office, introducing himself as Harris Burdick. Mr. Burdick explained that he had written fourteen stories and had drawn many pictures for each one. He’d brought with him just one drawing from each story, to see if Wenders liked his work.

Peter Wenders was fascinated by the drawings. He told Burdick he would like to read the stories that went with them as soon as possible. The artist agreed to bring the stories the next morning. He left the fourteen drawings with Wenders. But he did not return the next day. Or the day after that. Harris Burdick was never heard from again. Over the years, Wenders tried to find out who Burdick was and what had happened to him, but he discovered nothing. To this day Harris Burdick remains a complete mystery.

His disappearance is not the only mystery left behind. What were the stories that went with these drawings? There are some clues. Burdick had written a title and caption for each picture. When I told Peter Wenders how difficult it was to look at the drawings and their captions without imagining a story, he smiled and left the room. He returned with a dust-covered cardboard box. Inside were dozens of stories, all inspired by the Burdick drawings. They’d been written years ago by Wender’s children and their friends.

I spent the rest of my visit reading these stories. They were remarkable, some bizarre, some funny, some downright scary. In the hope that other children will be inspired by them, the Burdick drawings are reproduced here for the first time.

Over the past twelve years I have received hundreds of Burdick stories written by children and adults. These efforts show that the words and pictures of Mr. Burdick are indeed inspirational. Classroom teachers and aspiring writers have expressed their desire for larger reproductions of Mr. Burdick’s pictures. To that end, this portfolio has been produced. There is, however, another reason for this edition.

Peter Wenders and I were certain that the publication of The Mysteries of Harris Burdick would lead to the discovery of information about Mr. Burdick. Ten years passed without a single clue surfacing. Then, in 1994, I received a letter from a Mr. Daniel Hirsch of North Carolina. He described himself as a dealer in antique books and shared with me the following story.

In 1963 he learned of a collection of books being offered for sale in Bangor, Maine. These books were located in the library of a grand but rundown Victorian home. Mr. Hirsch remembers learning that the owner of the house, an elderly woman, had died recently, leaving the house and its contents to the local Animal Rescue League.

Impressed with the collection he found, Mr. Hirsch purchased the entire library. This included a large mirror whose wooden frame was decorated with carved portraits of characters from Through the Looking Glass.

Two years ago, this mirror, still in the possession of Mr. Hirsch, fell from the wall of his bookshop and cracked. Removing the shards of glass, Mr. Hirsch made a remarkable discovery. Neatly concealed between the mirror and its wooden back was the drawing of the “Young Magician” that is reproduced here.

This drawing is identical in size and technique to Burdick’s other pictures. Like those, it is unsigned and has a title and caption written in the margin at the bottom. The title on this piece identifies it as another picture from the story “Missing in Venice.” I have no doubts regarding its authenticity.

Unfortunately, Mr. Hirsch, who has an uncanny memory for the names and locations of the books in his shop, cannot remember the details of his trip to Bangor in 1963. In fact, he is no longer certain the old Victorian house was in Bangor. However, he is certain he still owns one of the books that came from the library where he purchased the mirror.

It is a rare early edition, in the original Italian, of Collodi’s Pinocchio. Inside the front cover is a bookplate bearing the inscription “Hazel Bartlett, Her Book.” All efforts to find information about a Hazel Bartlett of Bangor have proved fruitless. Rather than solving the mystery of Harris Burdick, the discovery of the fifteenth drawing has served only to make it more perplexing.”

Chris Van Allsburg

Providence, Rhode Island, December 21, 1995

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TASK

Choose one of Harris Burdick’s pictures to write a story. You do not have to try to write what Harris Burdick might have written in his books. You can write any story you want, just use the pictures as a way of getting ideas.

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Websites for Harris Burdick Mysteries

The mysteries of Harris Burdick – http://www.houghtonmifflinbooks.com/features/harrisburdick/

Teacher’s guide to ‘Harris Burdick Mysteries’ – http://www.houghtonmifflinbooks.com/features/thepolarexpress/tg/mysteriesofharris.shtml

Pictures available online here – also some children’s stories inspired by the pictures – the picture found in the mirror is not found on this website. – http://hrsbstaff.ednet.ns.ca/davidc/6c_files/documents/mysteries/divmysteries.htm

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Chris Van Allsburg is the author of many children’s books such as The Polar Express, Jumanji, and Zathura.

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