Chris Van Allsburg has always been the Rod Serling of the children’s literary world. Of that there can be no question. With no other author, not Gorey, not Snicket, not even R.L. Stine himself, will kids encounter that eerie feeling that can only be best associated with classic Twilight Zone episodes. All his picture books (even nonfiction ones like Queen of the Falls) suggest to the reader that ours is a world not far removed from the ones featured in his books. Maybe coloring books really do have lives of their own before children get to them. Perhaps strangers with amnesia really do have a special relationship with the seasons. And that board game you find one day? Fuggetaboutit. Of all his books, mind, the one that really touched this eerie quality best was The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. I can think of no other picture book that has covered such ground. Back in 1984, Burdick dared to simply imply stories rather than tell them. Its mysterious pictures, each with a single line beneath, hinted at whole worlds. Now fourteen writers for children have been tapped to interpret these stories themselves, to varying degrees of success. Whether you love all the stories, some of the stories, or just a few of the stories, this is one of the better short story collections for kids out there. Its success, however, hinges entirely on its authors’ ability to understand Van Allsburg and his tone.
Fourteen authors. Thirteen stories. One introduction by Lemony Snicket. Each author takes an image from Chris Van Allsburg’s The Mysteries of Harries Burdick and writes a short story about that image. The results are as varied as can be. Jon Scieszka seemingly channels Roald Dahl with his satisfyingly short “Under the Rug”. Stephen King, in contrast, presents the longest story with “The House on Maple Street”, though it is no less satisfying. Kids reading this book will find droll writing from Linda Sue Park, a Truman Show-esque tale of caution from M.T. Anderson, and a true epic fantasy from Cory Doctorow. By the end some authors have successfully plugged into the Van Allsburg mindset while others have struggled, but while the stories might be touch and go, they are never, ever dull.
Short story collections for kids can be such a mixed bag, particularly when different authors write them. You’d actually find a lot more consistency in a collection by a single author (like Strange Happenings by Avi, say) than one with fourteen different people. In the case of this particular book, I found myself judging the stories on two entirely different levels. First, there were the tales themselves. Were they adequately interesting? Well-written? Something a kid would be compelled to read? Second, how closely did the authors actually look at the images they were supposed to interpret? In short story writing there can be no “wrong” storytelling, yet I often felt far more compelled to give credit to the writers that knew how to use a picture as inspiration rather than as a mere starting point.
Let us consider the quality of the tales, first and foremost. Some writers wrote tales that were whole and complete stories. Stephen King’s consideration of a space-bound house, say, or Jules Feiffer’s tale of an elderly children’s author. Other authors sort of took their tales and used them to tell the beginning of a story. Cory Doctorow’s fascinating look at alternate realities did that, as did Sherman Alexie’s tale (which, along with M.T. Anderson’s, ambles the closest to Van Allsburg’s own penchant for the dark and mysterious). But those authors that wrote what felt like the first chapter in a book actually became the most interesting of the lot. They hearken back to the original Harris Burdick and its role in classrooms around the country. For years creative writing teachers have used the picture book and its illustrations to inspire kids to continue the tales. So stories like Doctorow’s or Alexie’s sort of end up doing the same thing. A kid could read their tales and be inspired to continue along the same lines.
That said, some of the stories just didn’t do it for me storywise. Tabitha King who, to the best of my knowledge, has never written for children before, is a strange inclusion in this collection. Her story “Archie Smith, Boy Wonder” promises much with its title and image. Sadly, it doesn’t deliver (making me suspect that hers is the first story in the collection for a reason). And interestingly, looking back at the book I found myself forgetting Van Allsburg’s own story (a fact I find relatively ironic). It’s perfectly nice, but I couldn’t conjure you up the details if you asked.
Then there was how well and author interpreted their picture. There was a great deal of variation in this. Some authors were shockingly faithful. Gregory Maguire’s tale “Missing in Venice” really does manage to come up with a reason why an ocean liner might be traversing the too small canals of that great city. “The Third-Floor Bedroom” by Kate DiCamillo starts out by sounding like it might go in a different direction, then justifies everything by its story’s end. Other authors were vaguely faithful. Lois Lowry’s “The Seven Chairs” uses the line that accompanies its image (“The fifth one ended up in France”) though not with the scene that we see of a nun floating high above two priests. That’s okay. It’s cheating a little, but it isn’t too bad. Then there are the authors who clearly just glanced at the image and quote and didn’t feel the need to really pair their stories to the images. I’m torn on the Walter Dean Myers story “Mr. Linden’s Library” since the storyline feels very Van Allsburg, even while it has little to do with the accompanying picture of a woman asleep in front of a vine-spewing book. Louis Sachar, however, may have paid the least amount of attention to his image. In his picture a captain signals a boat with a boy by his side. Look closely at the picture, however, and you’ll see that the captain has a firm grip on the boy’s upper arm, so as to keep him from escaping. Sachar latched on to the boy and captain idea in “Captain Tory” but the drama of the scene has completely escaped him. Ah well.
I told someone I know about this book recently and they responded with sadness. “Oh, what a pity. The whole point of The Mysteries of Harris Burdick was that kids could make the stories out to be whatever they wanted.” True, I suppose, but I don’t see this book as being anything but a natural extension of the original. There’s nothing to say that teachers can’t continue to use the first book for assignments, then show the kids this book as a follow-up. And who knows? Maybe the kids will read these stories on their own, think to themselves “I can do better than that!”, and be inspired to write their own versions as well. Hey, stranger things have happened. Above and beyond all of that, however, this is just a really good collection of stories for kids. Eerie and wonderful. Strange and unpredictable. You may not love every story in here, but the ones you do care for will burn strong and bright in your memory, long after the weaker ones have faded. If I were to recommend to you one short story collection to kids published in the last ten years, this would be the one I’d hand over.
On shelves October 25th.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.