Thursday, April 7, 2011

Using the Mysteries of Harris Burdick in the Classroom

                                          The Mysteries of Harris Burdick

I wanted to start the series with this book because it’s one of my favorites from childhood.  One of the reasons I still enjoy it as an adult is because of its ability to inspire the imagination.

Caldecott-winner Chris Van Allsburg wrote this book nearly 30 years ago, and it’s still a classroom favorite.  You can use this book whenever you want to encourage some creative writing amongst your students.

For those unfamiliar with the book, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick is about a man who wrote and illustrated stories, delivered samples to an editor, yet never returned.  The editor saved the remnants of these stories, which were then passed on to this book’s author.  The author compiled the fragments of the stories into the book we have today.

The book is full of wonderful, unrelated illustrations on each page, accompanied by a single-sentence excerpt from the story of its mysterious  origin.  Because the elusive Harris Burdick was never found, and never gave the any background on his illustrations, the reader may freely imagine their own story based on the pictures.

The book showcases everything from homes flying like rockets, floating orbs of light entering a sleeping boy’s room, and a vine growing from inside an open book.  Each picture appears like a snapshot from a fantasy story and begs several questions:  what’s going on here?  How did this happen?  What’s the story behind this picture?

There are thousands of potential stories behind each picture, as the author describes on his website.  He still receives stories inspired by the book, all written by readers who breathed life into what he began.  Keeping a copy of the book for extensive, long-term use would be a good idea.  The pictures and (sometimes cryptic) excerpts offer a million possibilities, which is why it’s ideal for the classroom.

·      For classroom use, you can simply introduce the book to the class, read a page, show the picture, and allow students to finish their own story.  Return to the book later and go to the next page for a new story. 
·      You could also leave the book in your writing center and encourage students to peruse the book, find a page that intrigues them, and create their own story based on it. 
·      If you have students who like to write their own stories, or they're experiencing writers’ block, point them to this book for inspiration.
·      Challenge advanced writers to play around with genre or the elements of the story.  For instance, is the picture from a scene at the beginning of the story, or from the end?  Could their story be a poem, historical fiction, science fiction, etc?  Could it be in first or third person?  Could it be a reader’s theater play made almost entirely from dialogue?
·      Finally, you can use van Allsburg’s model with entirely new images and words.  If this book proves anything, it's the power of pictures.  Anytime you find interesting photos or illustrations (other picture books, magazines and calendars would be useful), save them for student stories.  You can encourage students to also be on the lookout for any exciting images, or illustrate their own to share with the class and use for writing stories.

Also, check out these two resources:  Houghton Mifflin's guide to using the book for writing lessons, and the official site for the book, where you can read stories people have submitted as well as submit your own!

A true sense of wonder is sparked by van Allsburg's work.   If you ever want to motivate creative writing, or create fantasy stories with your class, look no further than this book.



  1. I bought the poster version of this book and had them laminated. The kids LOVE doing this writing lesson at the start of the year and I love having them revisit it later in the year to see how their writing has grown.

  2. Cool! It's really wonderful that this book has been around for so long but is still so useful.