Everyone has read The Polar Express and Jumanji, but are you familiar with Chris Van Allsburg’s more obscure work, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick? When I was a new 5th-grade teacher, this was my very favorite book to teach and to use as a jumping off point for creative writing. Each page features a mysterious drawing and a title as well as the first few words of the story – however, the rest of each story has been lost. It is up to each reader to make up their own story for each page.
Through the years, I’ve used this book in many different ways. As a young teacher, I had my students choose which illustration was the most interesting to them and then made an impressive hallway bulletin board with copies of the drawings and each student’s story posted beneath it.
As a young mother, I sent pictures to family members so each one could write a story to share at the next family gathering. One of my college-aged children sent “The House on Maple Street” to ten people of various ages and backgrounds around the country. She then attempted to analyze what each story had in common and what was unique about each one.
One day I was browsing at Barnes & Noble with my younger girls and realized I had never introduced them to this fantastic book. I saw an almost identical but thicker book right next to it on the shelf: The Chronicles of Harris Burdick. What in the world? An anthology of short stories corresponding to the original Harris Burdick illustrations, each written by a famous author.
I started screaming, right there in the children’s section. My daughters were not too young to be mortified. When I was paying, the cashier commented on how neat my new book looked. I told her that the only thing that could be cooler was if it had a story by Stephen King.
I was so excited by my discovery that I had to start perusing it before the little girls had even gotten on their seat belts. When I looked at the table of contents, I saw stories by Sherman Alexie, Lois Lowry, Lemony Snicket, AND both Stephen and Tabitha King! All I can say is that I’m glad that the windows were rolled up because I started screaming again.
I resisted the urge to go home and read it cover to cover and decreed that no one was allowed to read any story if they had not already written their own for that particular illustration. Then I started a weekly writing project with my younger girls. We examine one picture, then all write a story to go with it. Then I read them the similar story from The Chronicles of Harris Burdick.
This is such a painless way to get kids thinking and writing. I encourage you to see if your library has these Chris Van Allsburg books. But be forewarned, screaming may ensue.
Daydream Believer (and Homecoming Queen)
Genevieve–is a former public and private school teacher who has five children and has been homeschooling for the past thirteen years. In her free time, she provides slave labor to Dancing Dog Dairy, making goat milk soap and handspun yarn, which can be seen on Our Facebook Page and at Dancing Dog Dairy.