Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Chronicles of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
192 pages

The Chronicles of Harris Burdick is a re-release of Chris Van Allsburg's 1984 picture book The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, but this time there are short stories written with the fourteen illustrations and captions. The fourteen stories are written by a distinguished variety of award-winning children's authors and illustrators, including Kate DiCamillo, Louis Sachar, Jon Scieszka, Stephen King, Walter Dean Myers, and Chris Van Allsburg. The famous authors wrote stories for the pictures and captions that the elusive Harris Burdick never returned to give the publisher so many years ago.

The short story collection opens with the story "Archie Smith, Boy Wonder" with the caption "A tiny voice asked, 'Is he the one?'" Tabitha King's interpretation of this picture is bizarre and confusing. Archie Smith is a baseball player who has an unspecified disability. After he plays a baseball game and goes to bed one night he hears two tiny voices discussing his unique personality. It's unclear whether he is imagining this or if they are real. Archie listens to a baseball game down the street and envisions the baseball sailing over the moon and landing in the bushes. He plans to find the ball the next day. There is an abrupt ending that may leave the reader wondering what the point of the story is.

The second story "Under the Rug" by Jon Scieszka has the caption "Two weeks later and it happened again." The story is funny and slightly creepy. The main character feeds a dust monster under the rug in his living room until it gets too big for him to feed it nonliving trash from his house. Unfortunately it is implied that he was going to feed his wise grandmother to the dust monster at the end, which is ironic given that he decided to do so by finally following her oft-given advice.

The third story "A Strange Day in July" by Sherman Alexie uses the caption "He threw with all his might, but the third stone came skipping back" in a haunting manner. The story features mischievous twins Timmy and Tina who play cruel tricks on strangers, their parents, their teacher, and their classmates. When they decide to walk around with an empty shirt to pretend they have a triplet named Mary Elizabeth, a frightening turn of events at the end of the school day appears to be paranormal punishment for their wicked behavior. The end of the story might disturb some readers.

The fourth story "Missing in Venice" by Gregory Maguire is probably the oddest story in this book. The caption for the illustration, that is also used on the book's cover, "Even with her mighty engines in reverse, the steam liner was pulled further and further into the canal", is cleverly embedded in a weird tale of a boy named Linus who is fed up with his na├»ve stepmother and purposefully strays away from her to get lost. He meets a strange old woman who has witch-like powers and owns a magic ring. Linus steals her ring and must face the consequences of this decision. He inadvertently serves justice to the lawyer who stole the jewels left by his father, and may have become the old woman's apprentice by the story's end.

The fifth story "Another Place, Another Time" by Cory Doctorow is a sad, but hopeful story featuring the caption "If there was an answer, he'd find it there." A young boy named Gilbert is devastated by the sudden loss of is father and sets out on a journey across the ocean on an abandoned rail car in search of the "infinite sideways" he discussed with his friends. Gilbert believes there is a way that people can manipulate time, which he calls a "tyrant." One summer day while traveling on the rail car he reaches a destination that has an alternate reality that might be exactly what he is looking for.

The sixth story "Uninvited Guests" by Jules Fieffer is a suspenseful and engaging interpretation of the caption "His heart was pounding. He was sure he had seen the doorknob turn." The main character is an author and illustrator completely obsessed with his work and sees two characters from his books in his house one day. They lead him to the basement while his house is on fire and he tries to process what is happening to him. Its up to the readers to determine whether the author is hallucinating or not.

The seventh story "The Harp" by Linda Sue Park is a magical and captivating story about an old magician who wants to do one last good deed before retiring. He casts a spell on two sisters named Emma and Frances. Frances turns into a frog and must learn to play a harp in the woods that will achieve a line in William Congreves' quote "Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast / To soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak" or they will remain enchanted. The sisters, who bickered often, learned to work together and soon were able to play songs on the harp together. They break the spell with a young boy named Brian who is mourning the loss of his mother. Brian hears music in the woods and the caption "So it's true he thought, it's really true" is well integrated in the rising action of the tale. There is a lovely twist at the end of the story.

The eighth story "Mr. Linden's Library" by Walter Dean Meyers unimaginatively executes the storyline and caption "He had warned her about the book. Now it was too late." A girl named Carol is curious about a retired merchant seaman named Mr. Linden who spends most of his time reading in his library at home. She notices during a visit to his house that he keeps reading the same page of the same book every time she sees him. When Mr. Linden tells her that some books are not worth reading, Carol sneaks to read his book and finds out that it continues with a new ending each time she reads it. After Mr. Linden passes away Carol realizes that she is never going to be able to stop reading the book Mr. Linden couldn't stop reading.

The ninth story, "The Seven Chairs" by Lois Lowry is a brilliant and profound narrative that pays homage to the power of womanhood. Lowry uses the caption "The fifth one ended up in France" to perfection. The story's exposition of the main character Mary Katherine and her life's journey following her ability to levitate is fascinating and a poignant lesson on identity. The chairs that Mary Elizabeth can levitate with are symbolism of the greater things people have to offer in this world.

The tenth story "The Third-Floor Bedroom" by Kate DiCamillo is written in letter format, a unique style in this book. The caption "It all began when someone left the window open" is haphazardly placed in the tale by the main character Pearlie. Pearlie is battling a sickness that confines her to bed and she writes letters to her brother in the meantime. Her relationship with her aunt improves during this time and Pearle's view of the world changes as she looks at her surroundings in this challenging period of her life.

The eleventh story "Just Desert" by M.T. Anderson is a chilling science-fiction story reminiscent of The Matrix trilogy.  Anderson's interpretation of the caption "She lowered the knife and it grew even brighter" and it's accompanying illustration is far beyond what the reader might expect. A boy named Alex Lee is shocked to discover a few days before his birthday that he is the only real human being in the world and that his life is carefully constructed. His mother always told him not to go past Lunt Street, but when he does by mistake he sees a strange white space on the horizon and eerily vacant houses. He returns to Lunt Street the next day and his suspicions are confirmed when a gas station appears before his eyes while he is in the middle of the road with his bike. When he goes home his family tells him the truth and his mom says his memory will have to be erased again.

The twelfth story "Captain Tory" by Louis Sachar is very charming. A ghost named Captain Tory who is several hundred years old makes routine visits to a donut shop every morning before it opens. A boy named Paul observes Captain Tory through his window at the same time doing the same thing every day. One day Paul is worried when Captain Tory doesn't show up and then gets excited when he sees Captain Tory knocking on his mother's shop door below. Captain Tory asks for lantern fuel and this becomes his new routine. Paul is invited to see Captain Tory leave on his ghost ship one day and the caption "He swung his lantern three times and slowly the schooner appeared" is introduced just as Paul invites Captain Tory to stay with him and his mom. Captain Tory considers this and tells Paul he has to go, but eventually Captain Tory comes to live with Paul and his mother.

The thirteenth story "Oscar and Alphonse" by Chris Van Allsburg adeptly uses the illustration and the caption "She knew it was time to send them back. The caterpillars softly wiggled in her hand, spelling out 'goodbye.'" Alice is the daughter of a family of physicists who are fixated on solving the inscrutable Farkas Conjecture. Her father encouraged her to become a scientist to join him and her brothers in their passion, but Alice preferred to relax with nature. One morning Alice finds two caterpillars floating down a river on a leaf and rescues them. They spell out "thank you" on the rock she places them on. Alice converses with them and tells them she will protect them until they turn into cocoons. She names them Oscar and Alphonse and places them in a jar. Alice goes into her father's work room and the caterpillars tell her they know the answer to the Farkas Conjecture. They start shaping out the answer and Alice transcribes it. Oscar and Alphonse soon tire and tell her they will finish after they rest. When Alice's father and brothers find the paper Alice wrote the portion of the answer on they are amazed and exhilarated. Alice tells them that the caterpillars told her and they were too tired to finish. Her father permits Alice to finish the answer tomorrow. The next day the caterpillars are ready to be cocoons and Alice lets them go back outside without finishing the Farkas Conjecture.

The fourteenth story "The House on Maple Street" by Stephen King has the interesting caption, "It was perfect lift-off", with a suspenseful story centered around an odd discovery by the Bradbury children in their home. They are perturbed by a crack in a wall upstairs near their stepfather's office that reveals metal. Soon the children surreptitiously find metal is growing all throughout the house. The eldest Trent figures out from seeing a timer in the cellar that the house is turning into a rocket. Trent and the oldest sister use this information to plan an escape for their mother and siblings from their tyrannical stepfather. On the day the rocket is scheduled to take off Trent locks his stepfather in the house and watches on the sidewalk as the house lifts off into space with his brother and sisters.

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