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  New York Times Review

DO children still know how to play? The flourishing market for picture books that promote playing as worthwhile (and, yes, fun) suggests that many of us aren't confident that they do, or that parents do enough to encourage them. Still, the impulse to "make believe" is strong at a very young age. Imagination animates toys, turns pots into drums, gives nature a role. As Dylan Thomas remembered in "Fern Hill": "I was prince of the apple towns/ ... I lordly had the trees and leaves/Trail with daisies and barley/Down the rivers of the windfall light." Children's books have long celebrated that kind of creative play. A.A. Milne's "Winnie-the-Pooh" still satisfies children who dream of toys coming alive. From the same era, the children in Arthur Ransome's 1930 tale "Swallows and Amazons" turn an island camping trip into a spirited free-for-all between pirates and a shipshape crew. A generation later, John Burningham used delicious irony in "Come Away From the Water, Shirley" to present a small girl's lushly painted fantasy life in counterpoint with her sketchily drawn parents, who sit in beach chairs issuing the warnings that inspire her wild scenarios. While Shirley's parents haven't an inkling of her thrilling make-believe, the parents in "Swallows and Amazons" sympathize with their children's plans for adult-free sailing and island life. Daddy's cabled permission is classic: "Better drowned than duffers if not duffers won't drown." Such books depict the kind of free-wheeling play we fondly remember. They're also exciting stories with memorable characters. A lot of new picture books seem to reflect the concern that creative play is becoming a thing of the past. Some merely portray imaginative activities, as if children might not think to invent them. Antoinette Portis's "Not a Box" (an "Honor Book" for the 2007 Geisel Award, given by the American Library Association for "the most distinguished book for beginning readers") is one of these. Portis enlivens it, though, with a developing argument between her rabbit character and an annoying offstage voice: "Why are you sitting in a box? ... What are you doing on top of that box?" "It's not a box!" retorts the rabbit, in words emblazoned on a full page of primary red. And, later, "It's NOT NOT NOT NOT a box!" The square book, seemingly made of brown cardboard, itself looks amusingly like a box, from its "11.5 oz." net weight to its admonitory "this side up." Also, those offstage questions are set on box-brown pages, which, like the rabbit's increasingly exasperated replies, appear on the left. Meanwhile, in the illustrations on the right, sober black-and-white reality alternates with the rabbit's fantasies, which are boldly drawn in brilliant red against jubilant yellow; the actual rabbit and box are evoked by just a few broad, black, lightly feathered lines. The unquenchable hero perches atop "Rabbit Peak," hoses a burning building, blasts off into space. The graphics are handsome, the debate authentically childlike. Still, there's just the one idea: imagination transforms. And the conclusion lacks punch. Asked, finally, "Well, what is it then?" the best the rabbit can come up with is: "It's my Not-a-Box!" IN "The Birthday Box," Leslie Patricelli offers a similar riff on the same idea. Once it's unwrapped, the box of the title turns out to contain a doggy playmate, Oscar; the box itself becomes a plane, a ship, a sled and, at last (in good picture book tradition), the bed where the two characters curl up for a nap. Patricelli's several board books feature the same round-faced, diaper-clad tot, who looks barely a year old - an age when children are less likely to engage in dramatic play than to have fun simply putting something into a box and taking it out again, like Eeyore. Certainly no preschooler will be capable of snipping holes in sturdy cardboard, as shown. But babies will relate to the bright colors, clear drawings and toddler-proven activities: ripping off gift wrap, climbing onto a box and sharing stories. "I am very lucky," the tot tells Oscar as they snuggle down in their cardboard bed. "Today is my birthday, and I got a box!" Both of these books are well worth a few readings, and they'll remind parents what play can be. Still, they don't offer the kind of story that draws children back, over and over, to relive events, visit beloved characters and pore over details - the kind that sparks spontaneous, creative and independent play. Joanna Rudge Long, a former editor at Kirkus Reviews, writes and lectures about children's books.

  Publishers Weekly Review

Sometimes the best toys are improvised, according to this celebration of the humble cardboard box. Packaged in a plain brown jacket that resembles a paper bag (another item with vast potential), this minimalist book features a rabbit-child, simply drawn in a heavy black line. In the first spread, designed in neutral black, white and tan, the rabbit's head peeks out of a rectangle. An offstage voice asks, "Why are you sitting in a box?" When the page turns, the rabbit answers, "It's not a box." A touch of color comes into the image. The empty white background is tinted pale yellow, and a thick red line traces a racecar over the basic black box shape, revealing what the rabbit imagines. By the time the skeptical voice inquires, "Now you're wearing a box?," readers know to expect a playful transformation in the next spread. "This is not a box," replies the rabbit, as a red robot suit is superimposed over the initial drawing. The teasing questions challenge the young rabbit, who demonstrates that a box can serve as a pirate-ship crow's nest, a hot-air balloon basket and a rocket. 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. Ages 6 mos.-6 yrs. (Jan.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

  School Library Journal Review

PreS-Gr 1-In bold, unornamented line drawings of a rabbit and a box, the author-illustrator offers a paean to the time-honored imaginative play of young children who can turn a cardboard box into whatever their creativity can conjure. Through a series of paired questions and answers, the rabbit is queried about why he is sitting in, standing on, spraying, or wearing a box. Each time, he insists, "It's not a box!" and the opposite page reveals the many things a small child's pretending can make of one: a race car, a mountain, a burning building, a robot. One important caveat: the younger end of the intended audience is both literal and concrete in their approach to this material. The box itself, drawn as a one-dimensional rectangle, will be perceived by preschoolers to be flat and not readily understood as three-dimensional. Furthermore, those children are likely to interpret the "box's" transformation to be "magic," while five- and six-year-olds are able to make the cognitive conversion from flat rectangle to three-dimensional box and to understand that the transformation has been made by the rabbit's own imagination. Both audiences will enjoy the participatory aspect of identifying each of the rabbit's new inventions. Knowledgeable adults will bring along a large box to aid in understanding and to encourage even more ideas and play.-Kate McClelland, Perrot Memorial Library, Old Greenwich, CT (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
<p>Don't miss this wholly original celebration of the power of imagination, winner of a Theodor Seuss Geisel Honor Award</p> <p>A box is just a box...unless it's not a box. From mountain to rocket ship, a small rabbit shows that a box will go as far as the imagination allows.</p> <p>Inspired by a memory of sitting in a box on her driveway with her sister, Antoinette Portis captures the thrill when pretend feels so real that it actually becomes real--when the imagination takes over inside a cardboard box, and through play, a child is transported to a world where anything is possible.</p> <p>The simple text makes the book appropriate for toddlers, but the message and retro feel of the book also lead to it being an original and compelling gift to mark an occasion such as a graduation.</p>
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