Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Mr. Linden's Library

I hadn’t heard of Harris Burdick and of the wonderful, teasing book by Chris Van Allsburg before my oldest daughter got as assignment in English class to write a short story inspired by the illustration below:

He had warned her about the book. Now it was too late.

I discussed it with my daughter and we came up with ideas together, and names, and setting. Then she wrote her story. This is my very quick take on it:

A Good Book

“Mr. Linden, you said I could take any book I wanted…”

The old man peered through his glasses at the old book Sarah was holding in her hands.

“This one…” he started, shaking his head. In his mind’s eye, Sarah’s face was replaced by the round face of Tommy Sparks who had held the book looking at him with the same pleading eyes… oh, so long ago. And by the faces of the other boys and girls, before Tommy. He couldn’t remember their names. Too many, too long ago.

“Please, Mr. Linden, you promised… This is exactly what I need for my school report.”

Yes, the book was exactly what anyone wanted. It was a good book. Certainly, all those disappearances had been mere coincidences. It was a good book. And it always made its way back home. Still, he felt he should warn her.

“Okay,” he said. “But just don’t read in bed. It’s not a good idea to read in bed…”


She had almost finished the book. The story held her in the grips of fear and delight. Several times she had to put her nose to the pages, wondering if the smells she felt were coming somehow from the old parchment. She couldn’t help rubbing her fingertips over the elaborate illustrations, amazed a how they could feel like sand, or silk, or tender sprouts of a new plant. Her eyelids were heavy and her bed was warm…

Just one more page, Sarah thought.

She fell from a great height, tumbling through icy clouds, blown by great winds, and landed on moss soft enough to make her back hurt less.

“Another one,” a voice said in contempt.

Sarah was fully awake now and looking at a boy. His clothes were more like rags from old pyjamas and his blond hair was long and tangled. His face was dirty but somehow seemed familiar. Strange. The boy had a bow and arrows. At least he wasn’t pointing them at her.

“Who are you?” she said.

“I’m Tommy. Who are you?”

“I’m Sarah. Where are we?”

“You don’t recognize it?”

Sarah sat up and looked around her. There were some hills in the distance and a building, some sort of castle or fort. Before she could answer, a low rumble climbed into her from the ground and then the whole ground was shaking.

“Run! Run! They’re coming! Run!”

The boy grabbed her hand and she had to follow him. There were rocks on the ground that hurt her bare feet as she ran over them but she wouldn’t even think of stopping. The sound and the shaking were too frightening.

“Who’s coming?”

“The Breitlings and the Duke! Come on! We have to hide.”

The Breitlings? The Evil Duke’s huge guards, half-man, half-dragon who killed or enslaved everybody in their path? But… But, she had just read about them… in the book… How…

They scrambled down a cliff then Tommy pulled her into an opening in the rock, half-hidden underneath hanging plants. It was a cave. She stopped, breathless, staring at four more boys and two girls who were all staring back at her in the flickering light of candles.

“Phew! This was close,” Tommy said.

Where are we?” Sarah said again.

The boys and the girls were all wearing tattered pyjamas, and had long hair and dirty faces.

“In The Book, of course,” Tommy said. “Didn’t you read from it in your bed, right before you fell asleep? We’re in The Book and we’ll never get out of here.”

His words seemed so true that she felt like crying. Maybe she was dreaming. But there were cuts on her legs that hurt. And her nightgown was torn. She wasn’t dreaming.

“You’re Tommy,” she said suddenly.

“That’s what I said.”

“I know you… But you’re too young… I’ve seen your poster in Mr. Linden’s library. Your parents have been looking for you for ten years…”

“Well, you don’t grow old in The Book…”

Sarah sat down and hugged her knees. She thought of Mom and Dad, and of her little brother who came to wake her up every morning. Of what he would say when he wouldn’t find her there.

“Hey, don’t be upset,” Tommy said. “There is new hope with every new kid that falls in. Especially with the good readers. What were you reading about when you fell asleep?”

She tried hard to remember. She had been so sleepy.

“For me it was just The Tree,” Tommy said. “But it wasn’t nearly tall enough. I climbed to the top of it but I was still here. These guys have read even less. You must remember, Sarah. It won’t appear unless you remember it. I just hope it wasn’t a Breitling…”

She closed eyes and concentrated. Yes, now she knew what it was.
They waited long enough to be sure that the Breitlings had passed and that it was safe to come out. A few steps from their cave there stood a thick vine, its treelike stems braided together in an agglomeration of vivid green. Sort of like Jack’s beanstalk from another story.

They couldn’t see its top. It disappeared in the clouds.

They started climbing, Tommy first, then Sarah, then the other children. Before long, they were all in Sarah’s bedroom. Sarah reached out and slammed the book shut.