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New Books

Tantalizing images set in a new light

The Chronicles of Harris Burdick: 14 Amazing Authors Tell the Tales
By Chris Van Allsburg and contributing writers
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

For 26 years, it‘s been one of kid lit’s greatest mysteries: Who was Harris Burdick, and why did he leave 14 of his cryptically captioned illustrations with one Peter Wenders back in 1984?

If author Lemony Snicket’s introduction is to be believed, Burdick is by now “either very old, quite dead, or both.” The 14 chronicles that have been penned in his name were likely written by “pretenders” who were “drawn to Mr. Burdick’s striking images and captions” and wanted to claim his work as their own. Among the Burdick impostors: Stephen King, Kate DiCamillo and Sherman Alexie, not to mention Louis Sachar, Lois Lowry, M.T. Anderson and numerous other authors who have, collectively, won five Newberys, three National Book Awards, two Caldecotts, one Printz and one Pulitzer.

For a fictional character, Mr. Burdick has quite the star-studded coterie of admirers -- as does Mr. Burdick‘s creator, Chris Van Allsburg. The author and illustrator of the classic (and award-winning) picture books “Jumanji” and “The Polar Express” is beloved for his apocryphally whimsical storytelling and artwork that blurs the lines between photo and drawing, between childlike wonder and adult intrigue.

Almost a quarter-century ago, Van Allsburg’s “The Mysteries of Harris Burdick” picture book amazed and delighted readers with its pencil drawings of wildly imaginative scenes and tantalizing snippets of text. There‘s a man poised with a chair above his head prepared to smack a lump beneath a rug, and there’s an enormous ocean liner attempting to bully its way through a Venice canal. There‘s a nun floating impossibly through the air in a Paris cathedral, a house lifting off from its foundation like a rocket.

In “The Chronicles of Harris Burdick,” the mysteries continue, and so will readers’ awe at the Burdick concept and illustrations all these years later. Like any short story anthology, the styles and subjects of its contributors are wide-ranging, even surprising in the directions they travel with such scant pictorial information.

The stories are separated by a caramel-colored page and the letters “HB,” the flip side of which yields a two-page spread of the story‘s title, caption and the artwork. The text that follows not only riffs off the drawing and its caption, it includes the caption at some point in the piece in an attempt to answer the many questions it and its accompanying picture have raised.

In a lighthearted romp, Jon Scieszka tells exactly what is making that lump in the carpet in “Under the Rug,” about a boy who’s forced to sweep the living room each Wednesday and who does so without the aid of a dust pan. King explains, in typically creepy fashion, how four disgruntled stepchildren launch The House on Maple Street into the sky.

Alexie invents a cruel game played by bored twins to show how a skipping stone flung across the water could possibly come skipping back toward the young boy who threw it. And Linda Sue Park, with “The Harp,” ambitiously, and successfully, weaves together the stories of a frog, a magician and a boy who had been sent to live with his grandfather to explain why such an exotic instrument would be sitting unattended in a forest at water‘s edge.

Though most of the stories involve at least one adult, almost all of them are told from a child’s perspective, except for “Uninvited Guests” by Jules Feiffer, about a grown man who merely acts like a child. The parents in these stories are, by turns, controlling, manipulative, exasperated, indifferent, greedy and loving.

The kids are just as varied. Some, like the nun in Lowry‘s “The Seven Chairs,” are exasperating and adventurous. Others, including DiCamillo’s “The Third Floor Bedroom,” are spirited yet constrained. All provide novel, new insights to the mysterious illustrations that have captivated Van Allsburg fans for decades.


Remembering film critic Pauline Kael

Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark
By Brian Kellow

Film critic Pauline Kael could be as brilliant and maddening in person as she was in the pages of The New Yorker, whether you were a filmmaker who failed to meet her standards or an acolyte who dared to disagree with her judgment.

Movies, after all, were her life.

Some considered Kael an irresponsible bully and an opportunistic writer who could be far too chummy with filmmakers. Others found her friendly, gregarious and bawdy, though hardly faultless, sometimes boorish but never boring. She reveled in such attention and devoted herself to earning it.

In “Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark,” author Brian Kellow offers a making-of story as engaging as her criticism. It‘s no easy feat — what’s less dramatic than scribbling into the night? — but Kellow tapped her friends and foes and her writing while developing a colorful, evenhanded appreciation of one of film‘s most influential critics.

Her first movie review appeared in 1952. Kael was 33, a single woman in San Francisco struggling to raise an out-of-wedlock daughter and getting nowhere in a series of jobs and with her fiction writing. Marrying the owner of a repertory theater would give her a reliable platform to write about film, even if only for programming notes. The arrangement appeared more about Kael gaining financial traction than love.

Similar decisions by Kael focused on getting ahead. Writing bold essays taking a contrarian view was one strategy; attacking fellow critics was another. At times she was accused of getting her facts wrong and faking a technical or business knowledge of filmmaking to make a point. She apparently based her controversial 1971 essay on “Citizen Kane” on research she failed to credit — “stole” might be the proper word.

A literate style driven by passionate opinions and punctuated with cutting, crude remarks was central to her appeal. (Director Billy Wilder’s comedy “One, Two, Three,” she wrote, “pulls out laughs the way a catheter draws urine.”) She could overly praise movies, too, like “Last Tango in Paris” (“a landmark in movie history”), and she practically wet-nursed directors like Robert Altman and Brian De Palma when she believed they were misunderstood by other critics or abused by the studios.

Reading about Kael — she retired as a regular reviewer in 1991 and died in 2001 — will no doubt rekindle interest in her work. Right on cue comes “The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael” (Library of America). It‘s a grand collection of her more challenging, provocative and argument-inducing views, and a perfect companion to Kellow’s eye-opening biography.