The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, published in 1984. Fourteen stories, Fourteen pictures. A title, a single line, and a beautiful image to accompany them. How could you not fall in love with this?
The portfolio edition, enlarged posters with a new print, was published in 1996. I asked for both of these books for my birthday when I was a kid. Well, no it was my 18th birthday. Because I’d rediscovered the books and remained captured in the simple beauty and mystery of Mr. Burdick.
I was first introduced to Harris Burdick, like most kids, in an English class. It was the standard project teachers do: pick an image, write a story that includes one of them, vote on the best one. Mine was “Uninvited Guests”, a small door at the bottom of the basement stairs, the legs of a man descending the stairs. The short caption, “His heart was pounding, he was sure he had seen the doorknob turn.” I don’t remember what my story was. Wasn’t very good. It was a couple years later I found out this was all the work of Chris Van Alsburg, who I remember fondly from my childhood. Sitting on my parents bed reading Jumanji, The Polar Express, The Garden of Abdul Gasazi. That one was always my favorite. His pictures are so beautifully, so detailed and strangely magical. Harris Burdick boils down the story to little more than those magnificent pictures.
This Christmas I received The Chronicles of Harris Burdick, which expanded each of the pictures into full stories, by famous authors including Stephen King, Lois Lowry, and Cory Doctorow. The introduction, by Lemony Snicket, starts with this—
Is there any author more mysterious than Harris Burdick?
Modesty prevents me from answering this rhetorical question, but the fact remains that Harris Burdick has cast a long and strange shadow across the reading world, not unlike a man, lit by the moon, hiding in the branches of a tree, staring through a window and holding a rare and sinister object, who cast a long and strange shadow across your bedroom wall just last night.
—and might have been my favorite part of the book, filled with Snicket’s typical offbeat, almost absurdist humor.
All fourteen of these pictures capture the imagination and hold onto you long after the book is back on the shelf. The mysterious harp. The floating chairs. That railroad disappearing into the distance.
Another print titled “What Happened to Harris Burdick” lives at the Book of Wonder bookstore in NYC. Next time I find myself in the city I must seek it out, and maybe I’ll find out just what did happen to Mr. Burdick.
The fourteen original prints with a few children’s own stories