Tuesday, 28 May 2013

The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg (Andersen Children's Books)

Children have a wonderful capacity for dealing with the surreal. It might seem like an unfair test, but if your child can find joy in "The Mysteries of Harris Burdick" and it can consume them for an evening, discussing the tiny fragments of story that can, with a little imagination, be pieced together into something larger and all-conquering, then I think you've done a pretty durned fine job of raising your little ones and I tip my metaphorical hat to you.

"The Mysteries of Harris Burdick" by Chris Van Allsburg, a man more famous for his seminal Christmas story "The Polar Express", tempts you to dive into stories in a wholly original way. Mythical mysteries pieced together from the drawings and (some might say insane) ramblings of one Harris Burdick, Van Allsburg's strange and other-worldly tome can lift the heart, appear somewhat sinister, or invite the reader and viewer on a magical journey.

When you consider that, within its pages, each disjointed snippet of text accompanied by utterly lovely monochromatic illustrations, feeds you with the tiniest of tiny sparks to turn into a raging inferno of story, it's an approach that demands involvement. In effect, Van Allsburg is handing over the reins to you at the earliest opportunity to finish the chronicles in whichever way you see fit.

I took the approach of discussing the text. As beautiful as the images are, and as involving and atmospheric as they are, the text has the power here and the whole 'tone' of the illustration can change simply from one single line. For instance, the cover piece (you can see a bit of it in our header image) could mean anything but the accompanying text speaks of a magical journey to the amazing palace you can just about make out in the distance.

What's interesting about this book is that there now exist real stories to accompany the images. Chris Van Allsburg, along with a brace of famous authors including Lemony Snicket, Stephen and Tabitha King, Cory Doctorow and others have delved into The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, and have given their own interpretations of the original text and pictures (with varying levels of success).

In my opinion, none match the things that Charlotte came up with for these. A child's unhurried uncluttered imagination speaks of worlds and of beings we couldn't possibly conjure up and her brilliant take on each image (particularly the one of the 'flying nun' which was A) wholly irreverent and B) nearly made me snort tea out of my nose) eclipsed anything I could've come up with.

This book is utterly magical. It demands a lot but the reward is utterly incredible. Get it.

Charlotte's best bit: The flying nun story. Apparently (I didn't realise this) but Nuns hide jetpacks under their habits. That explains EVERYTHING!

Daddy's favourite bit: It's like a construction kit for stories where you're given a tiny tiny piece and asked to build the whole teeming cityscape of the rest of the story out of your grey matter. Utterly enchanting and wonderful!