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Uplifting Picture Books That Don't Preach
My Book Box
My Book Box
by Will Hillenbrand
Harcourt Children's Books,(August 2006)
What can I do with a box?
I can make a bug box . . .
or a pizza box . . .
or a pasta box . . .
or a hat box . . .
--My Book Box by Will Hillenbrand, p. 2-6.
My Book Box is a sweet picture book for young book lovers, celebrating books and the joys they can bring. An elephant and her little frog friend explore various ideas as to what they can do with a box, finally settling on the best idea of all—a book box! This is where their imagination and passion really ignite, as the book box becomes a treasure chest, a locomotive, a place of rest, and much more.
My Book Box is meant for a young readership (baby to preschool age). Hillenbrand's (Down by the Station) brief, simple text uses short or partial sentences that offer suggestions and get the reader thinking. The gender of the elephant and the frog are never specified, which allows for great reader identification. (I've chosen a gender simply for clarity in this review.) The book is not so much a story as a linked list and episodic scenes. The first half of the book focuses on what you can do with a box (responding to the initial question "What can I do with a box?"), while the second half focuses on what you can do with a book box—how convenient it is to have the books close by to read any time, the kinds of adventures you can have with a book box, and the way books are emotionally satisfying. The second half of the book contains a greater number of concepts pulled together by the common theme of books in a box (what you can do with a book box, where you can read books, what books can give you emotionally).
Readers of all ages will identify with the elephant's clear love of books, and smile knowingly at the elephant reading at the breakfast table, an airplane—anywhere she can! Sophisticated readers, especially, will appreciate the awareness of how much books can give a reader ("My book box is my treasure box./It has everything I need.") and will enjoy both the concrete and metaphorical suggestions ("travel with my book box" can be taken both as that the reader can carry their books around with them, and that books can take them to new worlds and experiences through stories).
Readers will enjoy seeing the concrete suggestions for the uses of a box before it becomes a book box. However, in my opinion, the suggestions don't quite capture the child-like imagination and sense of play that a box can ignite (such as Not a Box does). But perhaps that's because the first half of the book doesn't seem to be what the My Book Box is really about. As the title suggests, the true heart seems to lie in the second half of the book, with the celebration of books. For me, this difference in focus and tone between the two sections of the book brings a small amount of discord. Although I enjoy the love for books, the transition between the two sections—what you can do with a box, and the joys of books and a book box—did not move smoothly. It would have worked better for me if the entire book was focused on the book box, where the true energy is. Still, the love of books would make me pick this book up in a bookstore.
The text slowly builds to a tender ending, taking the reader through the emotional importance of books, and ending with the elephant saying that her book box helps her to have sweet dreams. This is a reassuring close to the book. My Book Box will likely encourage readers to want book boxes of their own, and Hillenbrand thoughtfully included a section at the end of the book telling readers how to make their own book box.
Hillenbrand's sweet, gentle illustrations were done in egg tempera, oil pastels, and ink on canvas, and the texture of the canvas comes through in many illustrations, most especially in the elephant, adding a pleasing visual touch. The illustrations are what make this book come alive; they greatly add to the text, creating linked scenes, humor, playfulness, and sweetness.
The elephant, the small frog, and the box are all outlined in thick ink, making them the focus of each illustration, while other objects have either no outlines, narrow outlines, or faded outlines. Each illustration appears on a single page (with the occasional illustration taking up a complete spread), and the illustrations are contained in thin rectangular borders of color that look hand drawn (and are pleasing in their slightly rough edges and different colors per page). Also visually pleasing is that the elephant and some objects break slightly outside the border on some illustrations, making them seem alive or unable to be contained by lines.
The illustrations have a light, happy feel to them, which is accomplished through the sweet elephant character, the cheerful colors, the humor, and the amount of white space used in the illustrations. For the most part the backgrounds and setting are white space, with the floor or ground in color, though the airplane, bedroom at night, and tree (to rest in) are exceptions.
The illustrations build on the text, showing much more than the text alone, and add great humor—most especially through the silly things the little frog does. For instance, in the page "or a sock box," the elephant is putting an obviously dirty, smelly sock with his trunk into the box piled with other dirty, smelly socks, while the little frog sits in a dirty sock on top of the elephant's head, both of them wincing against the smell. And in the "or a hat box," the elephant has the box on her head, while the frog has a tall empty box of spaghetti on her head (which I found particularly amusing).
There's an interesting mixture of depth and flatness in the illustrations, where some objects appear three-dimensional (such as the box and books) and others appear as flat, stylistic cut-outs (such as the butterfly, the vase of flowers, the globe), though this doesn't occur in every illustration. This mixture adds some visual interest.
While the beginning half of the book seems to lack some imagination as to what the reader can do with a box, as soon as the book moves into the book-box section, the box comes alive with creative, imaginative play—such as the book box being transformed into a race car, a spaceship, a treasure chest, and a table with an inked-on tablecloth. This confirms for me that the heart of the book is the celebration of books and a book box. The book box also suddenly becomes decorated in the last three spreads, building on the create-your-own-book-box activity at the back of the book, and encouraging readers to see the beauty in a box of books.
This is an enjoyable, quietly humourous, sweet book that affirms a love for books, and the way books can bring joy to readers. It can gently reinforce a reader's love of books, or just celebrate the joy of books with readers who love them. Recommended.
-Added February 2007
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