Top 100 Picture Books #84: Not a Box by Antoinette Portis
2006 – a marvelous springboard for creative play for any little kid who has never sat inside a cardboard box and yelled “blast off!” – Diantha McBride
And then there are the books that just don’t move all that much. #89 last time, #84 this time, Portis is an 80s woman, that’s for sure. This is the book that began her career and now we’ve many a fine title from her since. I’m pleased to note that this is one I once reviewed. This Geisel Honor winner (not too shabby) made equal use of simple words and a clean simple format to ensure that Ms. Portis burst out upon the scene. As debuts go, this one was hard to beat.
The description from my review is: 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 you 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.
Part of the allure lies with the packaging. The book is bound without a dust jacket, the brown cardboard of the book serving as its actual cover. It’s smart formatting (very box-like) but the real question is this: How well does it stand up to use in a public library? My copies, which are moderately used, remain intact if slightly fuzzy after multiple small sticky hands have played with them. However you can still make out the title on the spine (more than can be said for my copies of A Series of Unfortunate Events) so we’ll declare this an unqualified design success.
Kirkus said of it, “Portis pairs each question and increasingly emphatic response with a playscape of Crockett Johnson-style simplicity, digitally drawn with single red and black lines against generally pale color fields.”
And Publishers Weekly agreed with, “Readers won’t abandon their battery-charged plastic toys, but they might join in a game of reimagining everyday objects. Most profitably, Portis reminds everyone (especially her adult audience) that creativity doesn’t require complicated set-ups.”
If ever there was a classic in the making, this is it.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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