THE GLORIOUS EMPTY BOX:
ONE THEME in FOUR VOICES
An empty box, especially a large one, is one of the delights of childhood. Year after year adults shake their heads as children spend more time playing with the empty box than the toy that came inside it. So how can an empty box beat a toy for attention? Possibility. Interaction. Creative control. When the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi said, “It is not making things that is difficult, but putting ourselves in the condition to make them.” I believe he was referring to the artist’s and writer’s need to keep rediscovering the empty box. Our need to keep returning to a sense of openness and play.
Four picture books explore the theme of the empty box, and do so in four different ways. NOT A BOX by Antoinette Portis offers the most direct and interactive approach to the topic. The reader/audience becomes the inquisitor.
Why are you sitting in a box?
Clearly, an empty box can become anything the mind creates.
Leslie Patricelli’s THE BIRTHDAY BOX addresses the setting or occasion for an empty box. In this case it’s a birthday. While the box contained the gift of a puppy, the birthday boy quickly takes the dog on a series of imaginary adventures thanks to the box’s endless possibilities. Both action and text insure we understand that the empty box was the greatest gift.
THE BIG BROWN BOX by Marisabina Russo not only celebrates the possibilities of an empty box, she also adds a gentle plot of sibling rivalry. Sam lays claim to the box that protected the new washing machine. It becomes a house. Then a cave. Then a boat. With each new reincarnation of the box, Sam’s younger brother begs to join the fun. But Sam rejects him time and again. Their mother’s quiet wisdom saves the day. She gives the little brother his own empty box. Together the brothers turn their respective empty boxes into individual spaceships and play together.
As writers, one of the most important things we can do to maintain Brancusi’s “condition to make things” is to keep returning to our own empty box of possibilities. And, to approach each new idea as its own empty box that could become anything if we allow our imagination to play.
Greg Foley’s THANK YOU BEAR explores the theme of the empty box in a way that addresses our inner self-doubts and our outer critics. Bear finds an empty box and decides to give it to Mouse. On his way one animal after another proclaims it’s not so great, old hat, and too small.
Who among us hasn’t shared a new book idea only to have others tell us that it’s not so great, old hat, too small or too big? Foley’s addition to the classic empty box theme is the relationship between giver and receiver. In a way, he is celebrating what librarians refer to as the right book at the right time. When a rather dejected Bear finally gives his empty box to Mouse, Mouse looks at it this way and that.
Then Mouse crawled inside
the empty box and said,
“It’s the greatest thing ever!”
And so it is with our story ideas, our own empty boxes. No idea or book will be right for everyone. But if we keep returning to the empty box and playing with possibilities we will most certainly enjoy the process, and have a better chance of being the right book for the right reader at the right time.
It all begins with emptiness.
Picture Books About Empty Boxes
THE BIG BROWN BOX by Marisabina Russo. Greenwillow, 2000.
THE BIRTHDAY BOX by Leslie Patricelli. Candlewick, 2007.
NOT A BOX by Antoinette Portis. HarperCollins, 2006.
THANK YOU BEAR by Greg Foley. Viking, 2007.