The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg. Houghton Mifflin, 1984.
Illustration and design of children's books in the last 40 years has been highly influenced by the Rhode Island School of Design. RISD boasts David Macaulay, Brian Selznik, and David Wiesner among other prominent illustrators as alumni. Barry Moser taught at the school for many years, as did Macaulay. Smack dab in the centre of this deep community of talent, you will find alumnus and former instructor, Chris Van Allsburg. Trained as a sculptor, Van Allsburg, on the advice of his wife, Lisa, turned to book illustration as an extension of his art. His use of sculptural form, child-centred perspective, eerie atmosphere, the darkness of folktale morality, and subtle humour have rendered his voice unique and ground-breaking in the picture book genre.
He is best known for his books that have been adapted to film, The Polar Express and Jumanji, but my personal favourite is and will always be The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. The book's concept is simple: a fictional children's book publisher is visited by an illustrator who leaves his portfolio for consideration but then never returns to collect it. Inside the portfolio are are series of evocative drawings containing nothing but a title and caption. Readers are encouraged to engage with the illustrations, to write the stories for themselves...and so they have, all over the world as part of classroom assignments and solitary flights of fancy. In 2011, noted authors, including Kate DiCamillo, Sherman Alexi, Walter Dean Myers and Stephen King, joined forces to publish, The Chronicles of Harris Burdick, 14 stories based on the book's original illustrations. While I very much enjoyed their takes, for myself, I prefer to let the mysteries behind each picture be.
I have included a few of these illustrations here, but I encourage you to find the book to linger over for yourself. And while you're at the library, look for his other titles: The Garden of Abdul Gasazi and The Sweetest Fig are other favourites of mine, and I cannot resist the post-modern charm of A Bad Day at Riverbend. Given that today is the 30th of October, I should also single out The Widow's Broom, a title well-suited to Halloween.