Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Chronicles of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg

After The Mysteries of Harris Burdick poked and prodded the imaginations of countless readers over the years, now comes The Chronicles of Harris Burdick. Fourteen award winning authors were invited to create their own stories based on the original images. (Or, if you take Lemony Snicket’s introduction to heart, each author has now come forward with one of Mr. Burdick’s original stories, placed in their care for various reasons. This theory, however, has been denied, dismissed, or avoided by all of the included authors.) Each image is reprinted at the beginning of its corresponding story, and each story is as imaginative and mysterious and adventurous and horrifying as the personal stories created by readers over the past twenty-seven years.

Except for one thing. These stories, while incredible and wonderfully written, are personal only to their authors. Each story comes from one author’s imagination, not from the imagination of the readers. This reader was let down by the stories, not by the stories themselves, but by the fact that they didn’t match my stories.

Also, I always imagined Harris Burdick’s pictures and captions to be from carefully worded picture books, not longer works of fiction. I pictured fourteen books for the fourteen images, with each page of each book dominated by another incredible Burdick image and similarly carrying a one or two line caption to advance the narrative. In my mind when the mysteries Harris Burdick were eventually solved and released to the public, they would include picture upon picture, not paragraph upon paragraph.

Now that I’ve got my personal feelings out there, let me be fair. The Chronicles of Harris Burdick is a wonderful collection of stories based on equally wonderful images. These short stories have the potential to inspire more stories from readers - additional chapters and sequels and more detailed accounts of what’s Under the Rug or who else must play The Harp or what happened to all of The Seven Chairs.

But beside all that, readers of the original book who have wondered and imagined for all these years will certainly want to read how other readers imagined these stories. Sure, they are all award winning authors, but they were all readers and wonderers first. Just like us.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg

The introduction to The Mysteries of Harris Burdick explains how a mysterious man - Harris Burdick - arrived at a publishing company one day many years ago and shared fourteen images, each with a caption and each from a different story. Mr. Burdick explained that there were many other pictures for each story and was curious if his work was of any interest to the publishing company. The man Mr. Burdick spoke with, Peter Wenders, said he was indeed interested in the stories based on these phenomenal and fascinating images. Leaving the fourteen images, Mr. Burdick promised to return the following morning with the complete stories.

He never arrived, and Mr. Wenders never heard from Harris Burdick again.

Eventually the fourteen images, the story titles, and their captions were published as this book, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. But without the complete stories, readers are left to fill in the ginormous gaps with their own imaginations. In the twenty-seven years since it’s publication, readers have done just that, creating adventurous, horrifying, mysterious, touching, mystical - and wholly personal - stories of their own based on Mr. Burdick’s incredible images. Many people have written them down, but most stories live only in the imaginations of the readers, free to evolve with each reading and each imagining.

Teachers and parents will love this book. It moves the imaginations of students and children, inspiring creative writing and storytelling for a long time after reading.

Now comes The Chronicles of Harris Burdick. Fourteen award winning authors were invited to create their own stories based on the original images in The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. Click here to read my review of this new collection based on Harris Burdick’s original work.

Friday, December 23, 2011

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

When Conor awakens at 12:07, seven minutes past midnight, he should be thankful. Sort of. Waking up from a recurring nightmare brings a merciful end to the nightmare itself, but it also leaves the dreamer with new, fresh memories. Alone, and in the middle of the night, no less. Then Conor realizes why he woke up, and it’s not simply to escape the nightmare. No. Someone called his name. Conor.

At 12:07.

Conor looks out the window and sees the normal sights: the church on a small hill, the nearby train tracks, and the ancient yew tree rising from the center of the graveyard. Clouds temporarily obscure the moon, but when its light returns, Conor can once again see the yew tree. Which is now in his backyard.

It is the monster.

The monster tells Conor it is “everything untamed and untameable. I am this wild earth, come for you, Conor O’Malley.” Conor asks what the monster wants from him, but the monster responds, “It is not what I want from you, Conor O’Malley. It is what you want from me.”

Conor’s mother is terminally ill, and Conor is no better at navigating the emotions that come with the prospect of losing a parent than any other 13-year-old. But facing that daunting future helps explain why a monster in his backyard isn’t too scary. It helps readers understand why, when a monster says he’s come for him, Conor can nonchalantly respond, “So come and get me then.” It’s why Conor can shrug off a monster’s roar with “Shout all you want. I’ve seen worse.”

Yet despite the title A Monster Calls, the monster insists he’s only responding, that Conor called him. The monster informs Conor he will return on further nights to tell him three stories. “And when I finish my three stories, you will tell me a fourth. You will tell me a fourth, and it will be the truth. Not just any truth. Your truth.”

This is the truth from the nightmare, the truth that Conor has vowed to never tell anyone.

A Monster Calls is a powerful novel and memorable for many reasons, but two things come first to my mind. The interaction between Conor and the monster is one of the book’s strengths. A monster who could destroy Conor in a heartbeat patiently responds to Conor’s questions and demands and lack of respect. Second, I love the fact that the monster’s stories are not cut and dried parables with obvious morals, that these stories cause Conor to explode, “That’s a load of crap!” and the monster to demand, “You think I tell you stories to teach you lessons? You think I have come walking out of time and earth itself to teach you a lesson in niceness?”

But as the monster says, “Stories are wild creatures. When you let them loose, who knows what havoc they might wreak?”

A Monster Calls is a wild creature. Let it loose. Watch the havoc.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

A New Family Experience

This column appeared in last Monday's local newspaper. The intensity has been turned up a notch or two at practices, or so the boy tells me, to prepare for the meets in the new year. We're not sure what the parents should do to prepare for the upcoming meets, however.

Thanks for stopping by the site. You can view the original article on the newspaper's website here.

Kids now days participate in a wide variety of activities, and our children are no exception. From games to tournaments, recitals to meets, our family has been there. We've sat on bleachers, folding chairs, cushioned seats, and God’s green earth. We've walked for miles, stood for hours, and bought (and sold) more than our share of licorice whips and walking tacos.

But recently we added a new and thoroughly unique experience. A swim meet.

This is our first year with a child on swim team. Now, at six weeks and two meets into the season, we’ve realized that this youth activity is like no other we’ve experienced.

Many youth sports are played at the mercy of the weather. Sun and heat, wind and rain, cold and snow - as long as there’s no thunder, lace ‘em up. Some youth activities occur under controlled conditions. Basketball and volleyball are inside (but some gymnasiums are infamously arctic), hockey is also indoors (oddly, in rinks often warmer than gyms), and dance recitals are held in beautiful theaters (but there’s never enough light to read the program).

Swim meets are the only sports where the conditions are controlled to be miserable. It’s August in the Caribbean minus the beach, sun, palm trees, and pina coladas. Which leaves two things: hot and damp. But since it’s still winter outside, every open door brings an arctic blast. Wearing a tank-top and mukluks would be appropriate. Maybe recommended.

Volunteering at kids’ events comes with certain perks. Keeping the score book at a basketball game earns court-side seats. Assistant coaches are privy to lineup changes and secret strategies. Even the mom who brings the orange slices to the soccer match gets to hang out with the team.

Parents who volunteer as timers at swim meets certainly get great seats: right behind the starting blocks. Swimmers’ starts are meant to be fast, not necessarily pretty, and splashing will occur. Frequently. In your direction. Recording times becomes rather challenging. Pencil, meet wet paper. Swimmers enter the pool on your right, exit the pool on your left, and lean over your shoulder to ask, “What was my time?” If the splash doesn't get you, the swimmers will.

Even casual fans share the timers’ experience. Cheering for swimmers from the first three rows of bleachers is like an afternoon at Sea World, minus the killer whales. Makes the front row on Splash Mountain feel like the Sahara.

All kids’ activities have their own version of whistles, cheers, announcements, horns, starting guns, and “Stee-rike three!”

At first glance the sounds of swim meets might appear similar. Each event begins with a whistle, a “Take your mark,” and a horn. Our son’s last meet had 141 events all occurring in a room constructed entirely of tile, glass, and echoes. Every whistle-istle-istle and “Take your mark-ark-ark” and HONK-onk-onk reverberates long after splashdown. All 141 of them.

But swim meets, in all honesty, aren’t completely unique. Regardless of the activity, the smile of a medal- or ribbon-holding child makes the heat, humidity, and loss of hearing small prices to pay. You’ll be smiling every step of the way back to the car.

Every squishy step.