Follow This Blog: RSS feed
A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

Top 100 Picture Books #50: The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg

#50 The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg (1984)
38 points

This is such a great mysterious book. I love sharing this book with a group of students who think they have it all figured out. This book never fails to stop them in their tracks. After we read it, they always have a ton of questions about Mr. Burdick. There are always kids who want to write about one of the pictures included in the book. I, of course, am always happy to let them do, just that. : ) – Amy Miele

Yes, it’s better than Jumanji. – Hotspur Closser

Better than Jumanji (I concur) and I suspect its first-time placement on this list owes not a little debt to the recent The Chronicles of Harris Burdick last year.  After all, it never made an appearance on our last poll and now it debuts halfway up!  None too shabby.

The Wikipedia description of the book reads, “A fictional editor’s note tells of an encounter between a children’s book editor named Peter Wenders and an author and illustrator named Harris Burdick, who says he has 14 stories that he has written; he has brought one picture from each story with a caption. He leaves with a promise to deliver the complete manuscripts if the editor chooses to buy the books. The next day, Burdick didn’t show up. Burdick never returned to Wenders’ office. Over the years, Wenders tried to find out who Harris Burdick was, but he never found out. Burdick was never seen again, and the samples are all that remain of his supposed books. Readers are challenged to imagine their own stories based on the images in the book.”

Van Allsburg’s origin story actually involves the image in the book of the man attempting to bash a lumpy something under his rug.  When Chris was first starting out his wife took his work to New York to see various publishers.  Then she went to Boston where she met Walter Lorraine.  Lorraine took one look at the image and said “If he can get this much storytelling content into one piece of art, I know he can create a children’s book.”  So Chris got the contract, as we learn in Anita Silvey’s 100 Best Books for Children.

I’ve often said that I think it says something about a person when they name their favorite Maurice Sendak book.  Well the same certainly goes for Chris Van Allsburg.  What does it say about a person if The Polar Express is their favorite?  What about The Stranger (that’s mine)?  Or The Sweetest Fig?  Gotta watch out for those Sweetest Fig fans.  They’re trouble.  In any case, loving this book makes perfect sense and is practical to boot.  It combines the eerie Twilight Zone qualities fond in many of Van Allsburg’s books with the hint of future tales.  Little wonder that The Chronicles of Harris Burdick was as big a hit as it was (ten copies are currently checked out of my own library system).

  • A musical based on the book?  Don’t be quick to scoff.  It’s out there.
  • There’s a nice section on Van Allsburg’s website where stories written by kids are posted for one and all to see.  Best of all any kid can submit their own?
  • Some animators had their own ideas of what happens in the pictures.  Check out their animations here.
  • Here’s an Educator Guide for the book.
  • Here are tips for teachers.
  • Here are tips for writers.
  • Tons of videos abound about the book right here!

Hear Mr. Van Allsburg talk about the book.

And here’s one of the songs from the musical.  It’s called “Under the Rug”.

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. Ben Collinsworth says:

    Last semester my Integrated Literacy textbook highlighted Van Allsburg in a chapter on Author Studies. He’s my favorite picture book writer, so I loaded up my collection to share with my classmates while we discussed the chapter. The instructor had the same idea so between us we brought almost his whole body of work. None of my classmates had ever experienced Van Allsburg beyond The Polar Express and Jumanji, so the books caught them seriously talking. But Harris Burdick was the real show stopper. Long after the sharing and reading had given way to the lecture portion of the class, that book was passed around over and over. Exclamations of intrigue, amusement, bewilderment and terror interjected the lesson while twenty- and thirtysomethings took turns whispering “Let me see it again…” I felt like the kid who brought a snake for show and tell. Later one of them told me she’d started reading The Chronicles collection. With a few sentences and some masterful artwork, Harris Burdick created vivid memories that stayed with me since grade school. I was so glad, but not really surprised to see the same effect take place on people seeing it for the first time in adult.

    p.s. My favorite Allsburg is Two Bad Ants, but The Sweetest Fig is a very close second. What does it mean?

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      And Ben, I think choosing Two Bad Ants is sublime. Very mysterious choice. And as long as you didn’t go with Probuditi I think you’re in the clear.

  2. This book blew my mind when I first discovered it a couple years ago. It almost made my votes, but there were too many other books to choose from! But this IS my favorite Van Allsburg, so, what DOES it say about people like me?

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      Simply that you have good taste. And a penchant for the unexplained and inexplicable.

  3. rockinlibrarian says:

    Sounds about right.

  4. Hands down, my favorite is Wreck of the Zephyr. I wouldn’t be doing what I do if it weren’t for that book.

  5. I have a question. For the picture with the girl who’s cutting the pumpkin. What exactly is she doing?