Review of the Day: Not a Box
Recently there was an article in Publisher’s Weekly describing the recent downturn in picture book sales and what publishing companies were going to do to combat this trend. Possible solutions that were mentioned included making picture books as sparkly, glittery, and full of eye-catching razzle dazzle-ish as possible. No mention was made of whether the stories matching these bombastic visual monstrosities would be any good. So after hearing a story like this it does my withered little heart good to know that there is still room out there for a book like, “Not a Box”. “Not a Box” is not flashy. It doesn’t seduce the child’s visual senses with tacky holographic papered stimuli. Drawn with meticulous care and simple imagery, author Antoinette Portis’s book is a sublime joy to both look at and to read. In an age where books have to be either sporting their own personal lighting system or go for the gross-out jokes to get attention, make some room in your home for this small, unassuming delight.
As the story opens and the reader flips through the publication and title page, a small bunny spots and tugs away a box that it has found. Now we see the bunny sitting quietly within his treasure as someone (perhaps the reader) asks, “Why are sitting in a box?” A turn of the page and it’s the same bunny in the same box, but now red lines have appeared around them to sketch out a fabulous racing car. The opposite page is now bright red and at the bottom of it sit the words, “It’s not a box.” Turn the page and now the bunny is standing on top of the box. When asked why, the red lines have turned the box into an alpine peak with the bunny at the crest of the summit. “It’s not a box.” And so it goes until the reader finally asks of the bunny (with, perhaps, a note of impatience in the question), “Well, what is it then?” The bunny ponders this, in the same position as Rodin’s, “The Thinker”, then comes up with a fabulous answer. As we see it blasting off into space it waves good-bye from its rocket-box to say, “It’s my Not-a-Box!” The last image is of a distant bunny soaring past the planet Saturn.
Who amongst us was enamored of cardboard boxes when they were young? Yeah, exactly. All of us. This book brought to mind those old Peanuts comic strips where Snoopy would sit on top of his doghouse and become a WWI Flying Ace. It’s that same thought of taking the familiar and giving it that added twist of imagination to make it fantastic. More impressive is the fact that the readership for this book is vast. Both kids who can read on their own and the youngest of children will be able to understand the sense of play going on here. Plus, and I can’t stress this enough, there’s a kind of child-friendly wit at work here. Kids will get the joke of the bunny (who’s sexless state allows it to be either a boy or a girl depending on the reader) that continually contradicts the person asking it these seemingly inane questions.
As for the art, Portis’s style is so simple that it brings to mind the work of Netherlands’ artist Dick Bruna (creator of Miffy). Thick black or red lines make each and every image completely understandable to young readers. The text is also simple and spare enough that no lengthy explanations are required. Fans of good design will applaud Portis’s sense of clean lines and meticulous colors. Only three colors ever really make it into the book: red, light brown, and a light cream. And while I would not have plucked those three as ideal picture book mates myself, here they work together in a kind of perfect little syncopation.
Recently someone asked me to recommend picture books with simple words that also had a heart to them. This kind of a request is less easy than it sounds, and I had to admit to being a little bit stumped. That is, until I chanced upon “Not a Box”. Consider this the quiet, funny, unassuming antidote to the crass world of marketing out there. A classic.
On shelves December 1st.