The idea of a time capsule has appealed to Barbara Lehman since she was a child, and she once buried a box with things in it. In The Secret Box, one of her wordless adventures, a box hidden under the floorboards of an orphanage attic contains a map that leads to a seaside amusement park. The main inspiration for this box was one she inherited in her 20s from a childhood neighbor. Its contents dated back to 1908. “That fascinated me, that idea of something surviving all those years and being filled with interesting things,” she recalls. Here the Caldecott Honor artist discusses the timelessness of childhood.
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The children in your book have to be looking for the Secret Box to find it, and they also must pay attention to the map to reach their destination. Do you try to cultivate in your readers that same sense of close observation?
I think the way [the characters] are finding things is similar to the way the kids approach wordless books. They’re like little detectives the way they take in all this stuff, fill in the details, and come to conclusions. As adults, we look in a certain way, we’re more selective. Kids give equal value to everything, because they’re not prejudging. Because it’s wordless, I try to have everything forwarding the story in some way.
Everything in the landscape changes over time—except for the orphanage. Do you see that building as the center of the neighborhood?
When you drive through a city and you see, every now and then, a very old building, you think about how it’s lasted all this time and wonder about it. I thought of the building almost as a character in the book. I went around photographing lots of buildings before coming up with that one. When I was doing research, there actually were a lot of buildings like that—reform schools, orphanages—rising out of a desolate landscape. It really dominates everything around it. I can’t think why they’d make something so tall back then. I tried to make this a mix of friendly and imposing, and then over time it goes from something so big that’s so small.
You also convey a sense of timelessness about childhood.
In the book I see the whole time-travel element as the unchanging core thing about children. At first I wanted to make the book about time travel, where they’d go back to the turn of the 20th century. It seemed like an amusement park would be so much more exciting back then. But while I was working on the story, I changed it to not a specific time in the past, but rather to an everlasting present. Childhood is such a powerless time, but this is one of the powers of childhood that they do have—this very intense community that defies time and geography. I’m trying to capture something that’s elusive in the books, a feeling that’s there and they don’t know what it is until they get there and see it. You can’t put it into words.
Shapes are very important, too—the circle of the porthole in the attic, the arch that leads to the secret tunnel, the triangular rooftop that defines the orphanage. Do you plan how you’ll use shapes to define your books?
I do think a lot about those things. The book is wordless, so everything has to be conveyed through the pictures. There’s something so evocative about an arch, and the entrance to Seahorse Pier is two towers and an arch. Kids won’t be thinking about circles and triangles and arches. The story will be told through all the elements and the action. To me it’s like the music in a movie, the design of a book; you don’t think about it, but it creates a feeling in you.
So many of your books could be likened to a “secret box.” Do you believe that each discovery we make leads to a larger picture of the road we’re taking?
I would say a big “yes” to that. I feel like I love fantasy books, but there’s a reason why I don’t have magic wands. I love how small, regular things can change your life so radically. Just small, regular everyday things can lead to adventures or transformation or amazing discoveries—whether it’s a book or a key or a map or anything. You don’t always need something huge to happen for something very transforming to take place.
The Secret Box
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt / March / 9780547238685 / $15.99