I was browsing in a favorite bookstore recently, Books of Wonder in New York City, when a very helpful staff member brought today’s perfect picture book to my attention. Although it’s newly published in the US, its original publication date is 2013 in Australia. I love seeing how authors and illustrators from cultures outside the US approach storytelling. Today’s pair incorporates some interesting techniques that I think we all can use when writing and/or illustrating stories:
Title: The Treasure Box
Written By: Margaret Wild
Illustrated By: Freya Blackwood
Publisher/date: Candlewick Press/2017 (first published in Australia by Penguin/Random House/2013)
Suitable for Ages: 5-8
Themes/Topics: books, treasure, war, refugees
Opening: When the enemy bombed the library, everything burned.
Brief Synopsis: War rages, and an enemy destroys the library and its books and then orders everyone to leave their homes. Peter and his father flee, taking a treasure box containing one book with them.
Links to Resources:
- Craft a treasure box out of a shoe box or other recycled carton by covering it with wrapping paper, labeling it or decorating it with precious pictures or “jewels”. What will you put in your box?
- Think about what one or two things you would keep with you if you were traveling or moving house.
- Do you have a favorite book? Why is it your favorite? What does it tell us about you?
- Create a collage of pictures that describes you and/or your family: your interests, history and community.
Why I Like this Book:
The Treasure Box is a haunting but hopeful story about refugees that raises many interesting questions. The reader never learns who the enemy is or where and when the story takes place. In many ways, Peter and his father are like the mother and children fleeing in Francesca Sanna’s The Journey, or Zoe and her family in Fran Nuño’s The Map of Good Memories.: fleeing an enemy, we just don’t know who or when or where.
Unlike refugee stories like The Journey, or Margriet Ruur’s Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family’s Journey, however, The Treasure Box doesn’t end when Peter is in a new country, removed from the war. Rather, after the war ends, a grown-up Peter returns to the city he had fled and even finds and returns the book in the treasure box to the restored library. Ending in this way enables readers and listeners to envision peace after the war. It also places the focus on the item Peter’s father chooses to save: not only does Peter survive but he also saves the one book that illuminates something about the ruined city’s culture or history.
Interestingly, neither the title nor the type of book is mentioned. We learn only that it’s loved by Peter’s father, more precious than jewels, silver or gold, and is “about our people, about us.” Whether it’s a religious text, a secular text or a history of a particular ethnic, cultural, religious or regional group is not revealed.
Blackwood’s soft pencil, watercolor and collage illustrations complement and further the text. In a blog post, Blackwood reveals that she created “each illustration in layers, cut out and stuck one upon the other like a paper diorama.” This multi-layered approach enables Blackwood to utilize book text in many spreads, highlighting the importance of the book in the treasure box and helping readers and listeners remember that the book accompanies Peter and his father on the journey, even when it isn’t otherwise visible.
Interior Spread reprinted from Blackwood’s website
A Note about Craft:
In contrast to the families portrayed in many of the refugee books I’ve read, Peter flees with his father only; there is no mention of his mother or any other female figure. My guess is that this is a deliberate choice, perhaps due to the nature of the saved book. Peter’s father may be a religious scholar.
I mentioned Blackwood’s collaged artwork and use of printed text above. Snippets of text appear on the front cover, blanket the end papers and appear as background on other spreads. Curious as to where and when this story was taking place, I googled some of the text to determine the language. I discovered that some is Slavic, some Hungarian, and some Spanish. I then read the “fine print” and learned this text is taken from foreign editions of Sonya Hartnett’s The Silver Donkey (Penguin Australia, 2006), a World War I story that incorporates fables to highlight the importance of stories to culture, and Morris Gleitzman’s Once (Pearson Education, 2007) and Then (Penguin Australia, 2008), stories set in World War II that also highlight the importance of stories to culture. By integrating these texts into The Treasure Box, I believe Blackwood is adding emphasis to Wild’s thesis about the importance of the written word to preserve culture.
What references are you adding to the stories you write or illustrate? What details can you provide that help contextualize your characters, problem, or solution, or that may set your story within a literary tradition.
See more of Freya Blackwood’s illustrations on her website.
Susanna Hill’s Perfect Picture Books provides reviews of picture books by topic. While Susanna is taking a break for the summer, you can still check out the other great picture books featured there!