A mystery for Harris Burdick

In the late 1980s, I found Chris Van Allsburg or, rather, he found me. I was eleven or twelve, browsing through the picture books in a Dallas children’s bookshop. I was feeling crabby, so every cover seemed too bright, too splashy, too cutesy. The art screamed out, “Don’t you think I’m awesome?!” and I answered sniffily, “Leave me alone.” Beyond the slightly racy, hilarious Where’s Waldo? books, I wasn’t finding much that interested me.

A row of books beckoned to me from a darker corner. The covers intrigued me, as they were drawn in charcoal and pastels, so that the lines were softer and the colors were muted. The landscapes and people were drawn beautifully, with depth and affection for the natural world. But the art was also a little unsettling. The figures seemed so wonderfully defined, but the softness of the art also made it look like they were emerging from a fog. They were solid and ethereal at once, indicating quiet mysteries that might (or might not) be benign. The titles were strange and inviting and a little exotic—Jumanji, The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, The Wreck of the Zephyr, Ben’s Dream, The Polar Express. They engaged me because—in contrast to much of what was around me—because they didn’t give much away.

I flipped through the books, quickly at first and then, once mesmerized, more slowly. They weren’t filled with sarcastic one-liners, overly clever kids, nor did the narratives crack wise with allusions to the latest TV show or pop tune. All to the good, I thought. (I wouldn’t discover the joys of MAD Magazine for another year or so.) Instead, Van Allsburg’s books revealed themselves slowly, in gently paced narratives and gorgeous illustrations that overwhelmed the page. The stories really were odd, too, and spooky. I couldn’t quite figure out what was coming next, and the art continued to both dazzle and unnerve me. None of the books ended in death or gore or anything truly bad happening, but most of them were open-ended enough so that I could imagine—Van Allsburg, what a tease you are—a whole other book being written.

Fast forward to August 1991. I’m in Seattle, on a family vacation, staying with an old friend of my mom’s. Cynthia was an amateur illustrator, and her attic is chock-full of children’s books. I’m fourteen, full of unspecified rage, and perpetually worried about how cool or uncool I am at any given moment. At the YWCA, where I spent my summer days while my parents worked, a group of kids had laughed and laughed at me when I mentioned in passing that I still watched cartoons. I sure as hell wasn’t gonna bring up comic books or kids’ books to anyone ever again.

But Cynthia knew better. She invited me upstairs on the second day, and told me to feel free to look around. Her selection was better than the bookshop’s. David Wiesner’s surreal, almost wordless Tuesday, about a night in which frogs fly around a small town. William Joyce’s Dinosaur Bob and His Adventures with the Family Lazardo, using pastels (just like Van Allsburg!) but altogether more absurd and jovial. The Ultimate Alphabet—a book I still own. The Dictionary of Imaginary Places.

Again, Van Allsburg called to me. By this time, I had checked out from the library, I thought, every Chris Van Allsburg book available. But I’d never see the one on Cynthia’s shelf—The Mysteries of Harris Burdick.

It turned out to be the weirdest one yet. A brief introduction from Van Allsburg set the stage:

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 Mr. 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 Wenders’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.

What followed were fourteen drawings, clearly drawn by Van Allsburg and not some guy named Burdick, but I was willing to play along because the illustrations were so good and the captions so enticing. I spent hours—and, indeed, most of that vacation—imagining strange stories for which Burdick’s drawings were the springboards. I wish I had written some of them down.

My favorite image, and the one I returned to over and over again, was simple. A boy and a girl stand on the bank of a river, faces and bodies both as near-silhouettes against the sparkling water. The boy’s throwing hand is outstretched; a skipping stone is in midair above the water. There’s no splash between the bank and the stone, but the boy’s arm is not in throwing motion. How was that possible? The caption: A Strange Day in July—He threw with all his might, but the third stone came skipping back.

That creeped me out for years. I guess it’s because I’m a very good stone skipper. On placid water, I can get almost ten skips a rock, and go long distances. Even on choppy waves, I can usually get three bounces. I like looking for smooth, small skipping stones—the cool feel in the hand, the wisp of grain on the surface, the feeling on the forefinger as I let one fly. It’s one of the most relaxing things for me to do. In fact, I occasionally wish I lived closer to a creek for precisely this reason. The idea that this activity could come back to haunt me was cool—scary, but cool.

I don’t think of Harris Burdick much these days, but this afternoon I overheard something that I think he’d like. I walked by Virginia’s office. The door was open. Virginia sat, typing away on her computer. Kathy was chatting with Virginia, and looking over her shoulder at the screen.

Suddenly, Kathy picked up something—I didn’t really see what—and said, “Is this important? It’s got blood all over it.”

Virginia, without glancing back, said, “I know! I’m trying to figure out whose blood it was.”

Wouldn’t you like to hear the rest of that?

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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2 Responses to A mystery for Harris Burdick

  1. louisa says:

    The bio from his website, complete with a brief mention of editorial excellence:
    http://www.chrisvanallsburg.com/printerfriendly/about/biography.html

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