The Mystery of Harris Burdick

 


I heard a fascinating story from a friend of mine today. She was telling me all about this book with the most gorgeous illustrations in it that she had found.

The story went, she told me, that a man walked into a publishing company with some pictures from his stories with the hopes that he may get them published. The publisher was astounded at the pictures, and asked that he bring in the stories to go along with them. The man who said his name was Harris Burdick, heartily agreed, saying that he would bring the stories in on the following day.

The man never returned the next day, or the day after that. In fact, he was never seen again. Yet his beautiful illustrations were far too exquisite to not publish, and they held so much mystery with merely a small caption to go with each drawing that the company published the book as it was: a book of illustrations.


Intrigued by this story, I looked up his name on the internet. On his website, I found that one of the comments was written by Lemony Snickett. This immediately aroused my suspicion and curiosity. Lemony Snickett is falsely recognized as the author of the famous Series of Unfortunate Events books. However, Lemony Snickett is in fact a character in the books he supposedly wrote, and a pseudonym for the real author: Daniel Handler. Could the man who had drawn these beautiful pictures have actually been known after all and had spun this tale with the help of his publishers to make a mystery, I wondered.

Upon further research, I came across this very curious introduction written by the man who claimed the illustrations and published the book:


When Chris Van Allsburg was invited to the home of Peter Wenders, he discovered fourteen drawings that were, like pieces of a picture puzzle, clues to larger pictures. But the mysteries presented by these drawings are not solved for us.  


The solutions lie in a place at once closer to hand, yet far more remote. They lie in our imagination. "Layered in mystery, this extraordinary book will stun imaginative readers of all ages. It takes the breath away," says School Library Journal. Now this New York Times Best Illustrated Book is presented in a new versatile format.   


This large portfolio edition features each of the original fourteen drawings from The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. In addition, there is a newly discovered fifteenth drawing which is included with an updated introduction by the author. 

Introduction 


In 1984, I wrote the following as an introduction to The Mysteries of Harris Burdick.

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. 

Over the past twelve years I have received hundreds of Burdick stories written by children and adults. These efforts show that the words and pictures of Mr. Burdick are indeed inspirational. Classroom teachers and aspiring writers have expressed their desire for larger reproductions of Mr. Burdick’s pictures. To that end, this portfolio has been produced. There is, however, another reason for this edition.

Peter Wenders and I were certain that the publication of The Mysteries of Harris Burdick would lead to the discovery of information about Mr. Burdick. Ten years passed without a single clue surfacing. Then, in 1994, I received a letter from a Mr. Daniel Hirsch of North Carolina. He described himself as a dealer in antique books and shared with me the following story.

In 1963 he learned of a collection of books being offered for sale in Bangor, Maine. These books were located in the library of a grand but rundown Victorian home. Mr. Hirsch remembers learning that the owner of the house, an elderly woman, had died recently, leaving the house and its contents to the local Animal Rescue League.

Impressed with the collection he found, Mr. Hirsch purchased the entire library. This included a large mirror whose wooden frame was decorated with carved portraits of characters from Through the Looking Glass.
Two years ago, this mirror, still in the possession of Mr. Hirsch, fell from the wall of his bookshop and cracked. Removing the shards of glass, Mr. Hirsch made a remarkable discovery. Neatly concealed between the mirror and its wooden back was the drawing of the “Young Magician” that is reproduced here.
This drawing is identical and size and technique to Burdick’s other pictures. Like those, it is unsigned and has a title and caption written in the margin at the bottom. The title on this piece identifies it as another picture from the story “Missing in Venice.” I have no doubts regarding its authenticity.

Unfortunately, Mr. Hirsch, who has an uncanny memory for the names and locations of the books in his shop, cannot remember the details of his trip to Bangor in 1963. In fact, he is no longer certain the old Victorian house was in Bangor. However, he is certain he still owns one of the books that came from the library where he purchased the mirror.

It is a rare early edition, in the original Italian, of Collodi’s Pinocchio. Inside the front cover is a bookplate bearing the inscription “Hazel Bartlett, Her Book.” All efforts to find information about a Hazel Bartlett of Bangor have proven fruitless. Rather than solving the mystery of Harris Burdick, the discovery of the fifteenth drawing has only served to make it more perplexing.

Chris Van Allsburg
Providence, RI, December 21, 1995 
© 1994

What an incredible tale! I was very impressed and highly curious about it all. I wonder who the man was? I wonder what secrets are wrapped up in this story? Whether it truly is a mystery, or whether it was a clever plot by a publishing company, it really is quite an amazing feat. My favourite picture, and favourite caption - thanks to the writer in me - would have to be this one:



He had warned her about the book.
Now it was too late.
Guess which book I am checking out of the library tomorrow? Somehow in the back of my mind I get the sensation that somewhere out there, there is a very clever man behind all this, and he is laughing. If you're curious too, check it out for yourself!

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9 comments:

  1. Honestly, it sounds really, really fake :)But the pictures are lovely!

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    1. True, but it appeals to the writer's imagination in me! :D

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  2. No matter how fake these things sound, I always like to believe them. :D It's the idealist/romantic/imaginer in me, I suppose. Thanks for sharing, Bush, this is very delicious!

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    1. I'm the same, Gracie! I love to believe them too. :D I'm very glad you enjoyed it as much as I did! :D

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  3. That's a neat story, whether or not it is true. :D I like the pictures, especially the one with the two children beside the water.

    ~ZA

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    1. Thanks, Mirza! I thought it was very neat too! :D

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  4. Very interesting.
    I love those illustrations..they are very dreamy.
    Beth xxx

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    1. Thanks for reading, Bethy! They sure are. :D

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  5. So the meeting between Peter Wenders (whom it seems never existed) and the mysterious Harris Burdick was in 1954? And the drawing Another Time, Another Place ... "appears to have been inspired by, and based on an Erich Lessing photograph from the June 1959 issue of National Geographic magazine. The photograph, which accompanies a feature article about post-war Germany, shows a group of children riding a sail-powered rail car on tracks linking the mainland with the Halligen, a group of islands in the North Sea."

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