It is not surprising that Not a Box, Antoinette Portis's debut project, was both a critical and commercial success, receiving major awards from the American Library Association (Geisel Honor Book) as well as the New York Times (Best Illustrated Children's Book) and even spawning a sequel, Not a Stick. For Not a Book shares much in common with the very best picture book produced for younger readers, it is deceptively simple, and---like so many of the classics---it is primarily "about" the power of children's imaginations.
Part of what is so smart and effective about this book is its tight, repetitive structure. The first pair of facing pages includes, on the left, a tan background with a single line of text; an off-stage grownup inquires why the subject is sitting in/standing on/squirting a box. On the right, we are presented with a minimalistic black bold-line drawing of a bunny positioned behind/above/next to a simple rectangle, against a white page. Then, in the next set of facing pages, the pattern repeats with a twist; on the left, the words, "It's not a box" appear against an orange background, while on the right, the previous "bunny and rectangle" drawing is repeated, with the addition of bold orange lines turning the box into a race car/mountain/blazing building. And this alternating structure repeats several times, inviting children to make predictions and to "read" the bunny's emphatic protests (This is also a very fun and accessible book for "taking parts.") Moreover, when the pattern is finally disrupted, that rupture is all the more dramatic and memorable.
Though this noteworthy structure is part of the book's craft, one of the ways that it "works" on its reader, it's not what is most endearing and powerful about it. Not a Book skillfully taps the memories of every reader---child and adult---who has ever loved a multifunctional cardboard box, who fondly remembers riding, pushing, tumbling, markering, and hiding in it until it needs to be duct-taped back together more than once. It offers adults a momentary return to a simpler, less commercial childhood and children the pleasure of vicariously putting naysaying adults in their place. Most of all, it celebrates the creativity, resourcefulness, and joy of a child's unfettered imagination---the very thing many of us spend our adult lives yearning to recapture.
Miss E's Read: This book invites re-enactments. Indefinitely. 'Nuf said.