All-star authors add stories to illustrator's vision

The author of "The Polar Express" returns with his latest illustrated creation.

Story highlights

  • Author and illustrator Chris Van Allsburg returns with "The Chronicles of Harris Burdick"
  • Van Allsburg is known for his classics, "The Polar Express" and "Jumanji"
  • Authors like Stephen King are contributing short stories to accompany his illustrations

A nun seated in a chair floats in midair, an ocean liner squeezes into a Venice canal, a suburban home appears to blast off like a rocket ship, these are just a few of "The Mysteries of Harris Burdick."

The book, from award-winning author and illustrator Chris Van Allsburg, is made up of 14 amazingly detailed drawings, each with a title and a short caption designed to inspire the imagination of readers.

Since its publication in 1984, thousands of children have invented their own stories to accompany the enigmatic pictures; many sent their writing to Van Allsburg himself. Now a star-studded group of authors are getting in on the act, writing their own short stories for Van Allsburg's illustrations in "The Chronicles of Harris Burdick."

The new collection features Sherman Alexie, M. T. Anderson, Kate DiCamillo, Cory Doctorow, Jules Feiffer, Stephen King, Tabitha King, Lois Lowry, Gregory Maguire, Walter Dean Myers, Linda Sue Park, Louis Sachar, Jon Scieszka and Lemony Snicket. Some of the stories are light and humorous, like Scieszka's "Under the Rug." Others, like Alexie's "A Strange Day in July," are downright creepy.

Millions of readers already know Van Allsburg for his whimsical stories and illustrations, featured in classics like "The Polar Express" and "Jumanji." Both received Caldecott medals, the highest honor for an illustrated book, and both became blockbuster movies.

Van Allsburg is on a national tour to promote "The Chronicles of Harris Burdick." CNN spoke to him this week. The following is an edited transcript:

CNN: How did this latest book come about?

Van Allsburg: It really started out as a result of a writer not known for writing for children, having approached me about 10 years ago asking permission to reproduce one of the images from the book because this author was collecting his short stories into an anthology and wanted to be able to include the picture that inspired him and that writer happened to be Stephen King.

Of course I gave my permission because I was thrilled that these provocations of Harris Burdick's were not only working on schoolchildren, which I knew because of the thousands and thousands of stories I had gotten in the mail, but were also at least in the case of the King family inspiring some writing up in Maine.

So Stephen published that story, along with the picture, and I think it was about two years ago my editor said, we should ask some other authors if they would like to take a shot at some of these Burdick pictures and since we already have Stephen King's we could add theirs to his and we could create a chronicle of Harris Burdick in which we would have essentially a short story collection by 14 separate authors.

I thought that was a fine idea because I'd loved this idea that Burdick's drawing could be sort of like Johnny Appleseed throwing out these seeds and instead of growing little apple saplings, these stories grow up instead.

CNN: Did you have any personal connections with any of the contributors?

Van Allsburg: I was familiar with writings with most of them, not all. I did read their work once my editor compiled a list and was able to endorse their inclusion onto the guest list. But I didn't have any contact with them in the sense that I gave them a call and gave them a pep talk or asked them what they were going to do. They basically got the picture, the caption and the title and ran with it.

CNN: Did any of the stories in the book surprise you?

Van Allsburg: I wasn't really surprised, partly because of the many stories I'd read up to that point, not by professional writers but by all the children from elementary and junior high school that had been sending me their stories.

It's just amazing how the human imagination can work, and how the unexpected direction -- when it's unexpected you start to realize it's only unexpected because you're using your own imagination to make a determination about where the story might go.

And when somebody else's imagination is engaged it goes in a place you couldn't have thought of because that's the way art is. I wouldn't say I was jaded or inured to the possibility of bizarre content, but still not so surprised by them, but certainly delighted by them. I found them to be great reading.

There are a lot of short story collections but they're almost invariably the short stories of a single author and when you get a collection of stories by 14 different imaginations, so to speak, the variety can be quite invigorating for a reader.

CNN: What inspires you to start a book?

Van Allsburg: It has to grow out of a certain state of mind, which is an openness to the possibility that almost anything you see could provide the idea or inspiration for a story, just being open to it. In my own case it has to do a lot with just boredom.

If I'm not working on something, I'm eager to work on something because it's so gratifying. So in those states, between projects, I'm much more alert to things I see, things I hear, things I remember that might give me the opportunity to tell a story or make a picture.

People ask what's most inspiring to you and I say boredom, because my head hates a vacuum, so I've got to fill it with something and the thing I end up filling it with is an idea of what to make, and since the things I make are books, then I have to fill it with an idea for a book and I get ready to respond to anything that makes me say, I wonder what would happen if this happened, or just ask a series of questions based on maybe a simple starting point.

Even the most complicated stories start with a very simple premise.

CNN: Where do you think creativity and imagination come from and how do these traits develop?

Van Allsburg: I've thought about that a little bit, partly because I was a teacher for about a decade at the Rhode Island School of Design. It's probably an ancient question. I think most people agree there is a component of skill in art making; you have to learn grammar before you learn how to write.

You have to learn rudimentary drawing skills before you make a picture. I think the question still exists is it possible to teach creativity?

Let me put it another way, are artists made or born?

I think for the most part our culture embraces that artists are born not made. I think to a degree the experiences teachers have had with this book in classrooms suggests there may be some truth to that, but there are a lot of people who have a little artist born in them that they never discover because the opportunity, the motivation, the inspiration, the encouragement never comes along, so they dismiss it.

I think it is possible to at least make a little bit of the artist in the individual rather than just assume it's going to be born in them or not and I think one of the things that does it is experiences like this book. I've had teachers write me and say there are kids in this class that thought they could never write a story, that the idea of creative writing and them was never going to meet and all it took was the proper stimuli.

Which would probably first include a classroom of kids sitting next to him doing the same thing, but this picture in front of him and this caption and title, that was somehow stimulus enough for them to find that little bit of artist they were born with.

CNN: Are there any existing pictures you would like to write a story for?

Van Allsburg: You know when people have asked me about Jumanji, they've asked what the inspiration was for that and while I don't know if it was consciously in my mind when I was first tossing the idea around in my head, I do know that when I was a child I always had a fascination for pictures that turned up in the newspaper on occasion which showed the results of someone having gone around a highway curve a little too fast and they drove through somebody's living room.

The pictures would always show the front end of a Pontiac in somebody's living room next to the TV and the sofa. There's nothing unusual about the front end of a car nor is there anything especially unusual about a conventional living room, but I thought the two of them put together were kind of exciting as picture subject matter.

From that I thought, what are some other things you could put into a normal dining room that would make it very peculiar just by juxtaposition?

So I came up with this idea that it would look interesting or exciting and puzzling as well to see a Rhinoceros in a dining room. That would be an example of how an image can start a train of thought which ultimately leads to the idea of a story which leads back to more image making which advances the story further.

So as far as I'm concerned the materials for art are everywhere. Every day you'll see something. If you're in the frame of mind, then you'll use the one you see that day. If you're busy with something else, you may not even notice it.

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