The other day I was going through some old teaching material in an effort to free up some shelf space (hoarding material is, I’m convinced, a sin for many teachers; I never want to throw things away just in case…) when I came across my big book portfolio edition of the Mysteries of Harris Burdick.

My lovely big A3 sized portfolio edition of The Mysteries of Harris Burdick

Ahhh. Harris Burdick. In the days before everything was available at a click and could be projected onto a screen I used to schlep these poster-sized images around any time I needed an idea for a creative writing activity. The Mysteries of Harris Burdick is a wonderfully eerie book and so I thought it would be a perfect thing to share on Extreme Language Teaching.

Who is Harris Burdick and what are the mysteries, you ask? And how could you use them in class. Well, I shall reveal all.

“More than 25 years ago, a mysterious man named Harris Burdick visited a Boston publisher and delivered 14 fascinating drawings and captions, with the promise of more to come.


He was never heard from again…”

So begins the introduction to this original picture book by the American author Chris Van Allsburg. What follows are the pictures and captions. They are gorgeous, dreamlike and haunting images, each with a story title and a single line. You, the reader, are to fill in the rest of the story with your imagination.

Under the Rug – “Two weeks later and it happened again.”

I first came across this book while working at a children’s book store in Canada in the early 90s. There I met many teachers and librarians who used the Burdick images for creative writing with young learners. Later on, when I became an English teacher, I started to do the same. It’s not only students or young people who have been inspired by these images. The horror writer Stephen King wrote a short story about his solution to ‘The House on Maple Street’ in 1993.

The House on Maple Street – “It was the perfect lift-off.”

Since I got the book there is now of course a website and online collections of stories written by students to accompany the pictures. There are teachers’ guides and writers’ guides. You can probably find many of the images online too. But there is still nothing quite like pulling out a big paper poster image from the portfolio and holding it up for everyone to see in class. It feels like a real found treasure then.

My personal favourite, The Seven Chairs – “The fifth one ended up in France.”

Highly recommended!


The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg

Portfolio edition

Book edition


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