'Polar Express' Author On Updating 'Chronicles Of Harris Burdick' 11:58

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As we are just one week away from Halloween, we've got a suitably peculiar story to tell you.

The year was 1984. A man named Chris Van Allsburg - slender, snow white beard, twinkle in his eye - had a friend who was a publisher of children's books. One day, his friend invited him to his house.

"So, I went to his house," Van Allsburg says. "He had these 14 drawings. Very peculiar. Very compelling. Provocative."

Peculiar? Provocative? Sounds exactly how fans have described Van Allsburg's own work. In fact, these drawings looked very much like drawings Van Allsburg himself might have made.

(For those among us who might have a mental cobweb or two blocking the memory, Van Allsburg is the Caldecott-winning author and illustrator of some of the most beloved children's books in America, including "The Polar Express" and "Jumanji.")

Anyway, where were we? Oh yes, the spooky drawings. They were made by a man named Harris Burdick.

"And what the drawings had on them was the title from the story from which they came, and the caption from the part of the story that they connected to," Van Allsburg says.

Drawings like "Mr. Linden's Library:" a picture of a child, asleep with an open book on the bed, and from that open book sinister-looking vines creep across the child's arm. The caption says: "He had warned her about the book. Now it was too late."


As Van Allsburg remembers it, the friend was amazed by the drawings. So he told Harris Burdick, "Please, by all means, come back tomorrow. And bring the remainder of your work so we can evaluate it more fully. Burdick went off. He left the 14 drawings behind."

Burdick never returned.

Well, that's the yarn that Van Allsburg spins. It may be true. Or, it may not be. He won't say. The twinkle in his eye only gets brighter when you ask.

What we do know is that in 1984, Mr. Van Allsburg put the spooky drawings and creepy captions together into a book titled: "The Mysteries of Harris Burdick." And because the 14 illustrations were orphans, because had no official story with them, Van Allsburg says a generation of readers have felt compelled to figure out what the stories are. "They catalyze each other in a way that triggers the imagination, and triggers it in a way that teachers have found useful in classrooms. And over the years, thousands of stories have arrived at my door."

Some of those stories were written by very famous authors. Stephen King penned his short story, "The House on Maple Street," after seeing one of Van Allsburg's — oops, I mean Harris Burdick's --- drawings.

Now, that story is one that appears in the new book, "The Chronicles of Harris Burdick: 14 Amazing Authors Tell the Tales."

The authors include Sherman Alexie, Lois Lowry, Cory Doctorow, Jules Feiffer and M.T. Anderson.

So, we have arrived at the part of this story where we find ourselves in a radio studio with Chris Van Allsburg and M.T. Anderson, and Mr. Anderson tells us when the drawings of Harris Burdick first cast their spell on him.

"As a teenager, I was into dadaism and Edward Gorey," Anderson says. "The photorealism of the Burdick drawings makes them even more haunting. In a sense the absurdism of what's being drawn is complemented by sharpness of details. And that makes you want to 'solve' the story."

But the magic of "The Mysteries of Harris Burdick" is, of course, that there are no solutions to the drawings. Individual imagination must fill the gap that Allsburg left by offering only captions, not completed stories. So does Van Allsburg worry about issuing an official-looking book with stories by 14 famous authors? Does he fear it might squash the creativity inspired by the original drawings?

"I did worry that it might be kind of discouraging to younger kids," Van Allsburg says. "But I think if it's used correctly in the classroom, it's not going to detract from the power of the original book."

Van Allsburg adds that the Burdick stories have already taken on a life of their own. "They are like Johnny Appleseed. We weren't planting seeds that became trees, but seeds that became stories."


  • Chris Van Allsburg, author of "The Polar Express", "Jumanji", and other award winning children's books
  • M. T. Anderson, author of numerous books including, "The Serpent Came To Gloucester" and "The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing"

This program aired on October 24, 2011.