Title Creation with the Mysteries of Harris Burdick

Personally, I think a title should be the last thing students write.  After all, how can they possibly know the best title for a piece of writing until they’ve finished writing it?  This activity, however, is not about giving stories titles at all; rather, it is about creating titles that are more creative and not so “on-the-nose.” (i.e. a story about a class trip entitled “The Class Trip”).  This isn’t really one lesson but a series of exercises that can be done every day for a week or two, 10-15 minutes at a stretch.   (I like these repeatable mini-lessons because I believe students, in the long run, remember the concepts better.)

The only thing you’ll need is The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg.  It might be the best book for creative writing activities out there, even though, strictly speaking, it’s not a book of creative writing activities.  Here’s the premise of this remarkable picture book: a series of fourteen sketches has been left behind by the fictional Harris Burdick; there were, reputedly, stories that went along with the pictures, but they’ve all been lost.  The book is composed of the sketches (duh) along with the titles of the stories and a brief, teasing description (for example, “THE SEVEN CHAIRS: The fifth one ended up in France”).

For more information—or to snag a copy—see the website below:


The website has some great ideas on how to use the book, most of which revolve around using the pictures as story prompts.  There’s nothing wrong with that; I’ve done it before, and it works great!  I prefer to use the book to focus on titles, however, like so:

Show the class a sketch on your overhead projector (or ladybug thingy) and let them generate their own title in their journals.  Talk about some of the choices they’ve come up with, and discuss whether or not they fall into the criteria for a good title:

  1. Does it grab the reader’s interest?
  2. Does it fit the story? (Or, in this case, picture.)

After this, reveal the “real” title of the picture.  Though the official title of each sketch shouldn’t be considered the “correct” answer, students tend to see it that way.  Oh well.

I continue this for a week, doing 2 or 3 pictures a day.  Some kids begin to add their own teaser sentences once they get the hang of things, though this will be difficult for students who aren’t so creative.  Throughout the course of the week, you will see their titles start to improve, which is pretty cool.

The follow-up project, however, is the really fun part.  Students draw their own “Harris Burdick” illustration (i.e. a picture based on a story that does not exist).  They also come up with a title and a teaser sentence, but they must keep this a secret (you probably see where this is going).

At this point, you simply re-do what you did the first week, except using the students’ illustrations as opposed to the ones from the book.  The artists love hearing the titles that their classmates generate, and the idea that a title should be as creative as the story itself gets emphasized over and over again!