It might not be wise to admit this, but in the last few months I haven't adopted a regular method of selecting children's books to review. I've found myself haphazardly drawn to certain picture books because of their beautiful, detailed, quirky or colorful illustrations.
I'm absorbed by picture books that create entire worlds within their pages. Visual innovation can go a long way with me, even if the storyline may suffer because of it. (Consider Rufus Butler Seder's "Scanimation" picture books.)
It takes playing with a child to remind myself that all of these bells and whistles are superfluous. Many children can entertain themselves for hours with a piece of sidewalk chalk, a white paper airplane or a large cardboard box. They seem not to need elaborate toys, books or movies to tell stories for them.
A few authors manage to illustrate the simplicity and limitlessness of a child's imagination. Two books that delight with their creativity are Crockett Johnson's "Harold and the Purple Crayon" (HarperCollins, 1955), and Antoinette Portis' "Not a Box" (HarperCollins, 2006).
At 61 little pages, "Harold and the Purple Crayon" almost crosses over into chapter book territory, except that the story depends so heavily on visuals. If you haven't read this classic yet, you're in for a treat.
Harold's adventure begins when he decides "to go for a walk in the moonlight." Since there is no moon, Harold draws one with a purple crayon, and then keeps drawing, beginning with a path and ending with an enormous cityscape. His drawings create both problems and solutions: a wobbly crayon creates an ocean that Harold falls into until he draws a boat.
This imaginative tale is governed by Harold's bold spirit and quick thinking. Johnson's text has enough to do in describing Harold's activities, but the author adds to our enjoyment by tucking playful double-meanings into the text (For example, he writes, "Harold made his bed. He got in it, and he drew up the covers.")
The simple outlines of "Not a Box" immediately reminded me of the thick, colorful strokes of "Harold and the Purple Crayon." It's actually a little embarrassing that I could be so completely won over by a little bunny with a black nose and the simple Sharpie-drawn square that makes the box.
Portis' concept is even simpler than Johnson's, but she adds the element of reader interaction. The entirety of the book is a conversation between the creative bunny and a more grown-up, more call-it-like-it-is speaker, who says things like, "Are you still standing around in that box?" As the bunny replies, "It's not a box," the reader can see what the bunny imagines - a mountain peak, a burning building, a robot, a pirate ship - the possibilities are endless. Portis' bunny defies limitations.
It's easy to identify with these two inventive protagonists. Not only do these stories highlight the imaginative potential of childhood, but they remind me of a time before I learned that some of my ideas were stupid, or that I wasn't a very good artist. I wish I had a photo to show you of my brother and me on our grandma's patio in our racecar/spaceship/time machine cardboard boxes. Simply put, Johnson and Portis capture the magical perspective of the littlest, and of those of us who wish to relearn it.
Zoey Smith works at the Whitman College Bookstore and is helping expand the children's book section. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.