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Uplifting Picture Books That Don't Preach
Not a Box
Not a Box
written and illustrated by Antoinette Portis
Why are you sitting in a box?
It's not a box.
What are you doing on top of that box?
It's not a box!
--Not a Box, by Antoinette Portis, p. 1-8.
Imagination is a powerful thing, and can make even a simple cardboard box into a great toy. In Not a Box, the young bunny is questioned by an adult as to what she or he is doing in or on the box—and the bunny insists that the box is not a box. The bunny doesn't tell us in words what the box is, but the illustrations do. This is a delightful reminder of the power of imagination, and the freedom of play.
Portis' text is spare, and tells only half the story; if you were to read it without the illustrations, it might even seem boring. The real magic happens in the interplay between the text and the illustrations; the illustrations show what the box really is to the young bunny at that moment—a race car, a mountain, a fire to put out, a robot body. There is a perfect interaction between the text and the illustrations, each adding to the magic, while neither would work on their own.
The text reads as a conversation between an adult and a young bunny, and it builds on itself as the child gets more insistent that the box is not a box. The bunny's insistence and mounting defiance or irritation is shown both through the punctuation (moving from the "It's not a box" sentence with a period to, in the next spread, an exclamation mark), and through the added words and the implied stress on those words, "I said, it's not a box," and a kind of temper-tantrum answer: "It's NOT NOT NOT NOT a box!"
The young bunny's dialogue rings true, and feels completely child-like. It evokes the way a young child can add playfulness to their world using something as simple as a box and the richness of their imagination. It's never stated (through the text or illustrations) whether the bunny is female or male, and this allows great reader identification.
The repetition in the text (using slightly different phrasing) of why the bunny is in or on a box, and that the box is not a box, is pleasing and fun, has a nice rhythm, and feels like a real conversation between a parent and a child.
The text is beautifully written, with nothing extraneous added. The one thing that was missing for me was a slightly more satisfying ending; the answer the young bunny gave didn't feel as strong or as real to me as the rest of the book.
The pacing between the text and the illustrations is strong, and works well. Each question is asked on its own spread, paired with the illustration showing the bunny and her box the way an observer might see her. The little bunny's answer to the question, both through text and illustrations, appears in the next spread, showing what the little bunny sees in her mind, and providing a surprise for the reader by making them wait. This pacing encourages imaginative readers to guess what the box might be.
The illustrations work well with the text. Portis' simple child-like line drawings use thick black lines. The young bunny is a basic rabbit shape with dots for eyes and large oval for nose, and the illustrations are flat, one dimensional drawings (the box looks like a rectangle).
When the adult is asking the repeating question about why the bunny is in or on the box, that question is printed in white print on a brown background full page, and the illustrations are thick black lines on white background, hinting perhaps at the adult's unimaginative perspective. But when the little bunny is answering the question, her answer pops into color and we see what the bunny sees in her imagination. The contrast makes the bunny's answer seem all the more imaginative and alive. The bunny's textual answer is printed in white on a vibrant red background, and the illustrations have a butter-yellow background, with the bunny and the basic box drawn in the thick black lines, and what the bunny sees in her imagination is drawn in red lines, separating the reality from the fantasy, and making the fantasy seem more vibrant.
The illustrations are all one per page until the bunny says: "It's NOT NOT NOT NOT a box!" and then there are four illustrations on the page, each in its own yellow or cream square, one illustration for each "not," showing what the box could be. This helps the reader open their imaginations, and see that there are many possibilities for the box.
When the bunny is asked, "Well, what is it then?", the next spread shows the bunny sitting, thinking on top of the box, with no text, and then the next spread shows the bunny's answer, both in text and illustrations. This pause builds suspense (What will the answer be?), and also feels believable—the bunny needing time to figure out an answer that an adult would understand. It's a nice build up to the ending.
Readers looking for beautiful paintings or detailed art won't find that here. What they will find are simple line illustrations that encourage the reader to use their imagination, just like the young bunny in the book.
Kudos to the designer who created the cover; it is the color (and almost the texture) of a box, and in addition to the title and author information, is printed with things that a box might have; on the front, next to the author/illustrator's name, it says, "Net wt. 11.5 OZ." and on the back it has the red stamped words "This side up" between two red arrows, a symbol that many children will gleefully recognize. This adds to the delight and imagination of the book.
Not a Box captures the joy and fun of playing in a box and using one's imagination. This is a gentle celebration of playfulness, imagination, and seeing the world your own way. Not a Box is a fun, quick read that may encourage young readers to find boxes of their own, and older readers to remember times when they, too, played in a box.
-Added February 2007
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