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A book outside the box

Not a Box“That sounds just like my dad!” one of my students exclaimed. “That must be a grown-up saying that!” offered another. We were in the midst of reading Antoinette Portis’s Not a Box and my second graders were bursting with excited insights about just who the off-page narrator might be.

On its surface, Not a Box seems simple — a young rabbit repeatedly advocates for imagination by reiterating that no, his box is not a box, but whatever he wants or dreams it to be. The seeming simplicity of Not a Box, however, is extremely deceptive.

As a teacher interested in cultivating curiosity and creativity in my students, I am always on the lookout for books that deviate from the standard idea of “book” that my students hold. Due to its intriguing off-page narrator and its clever illustrations, Not a Box certainly differs from the usual elementary school fare.

The off-page narrator, whom we never see, drives the book with constant interrogation about what the rabbit is doing with the box. My students knew right away that the questions were not coming from the character they saw on the page, but from a source outside the book. They also knew that the rebuttals were coming from the rabbit and cheered its increasingly adamant responses to the off-page narrator.

My students’ insights and understanding of the book spilled over into the illustrations, which are also outside-the-box and pull a lot of weight for this word-sparse text.

On each page where an inquiry is made about what the main character intends to do with the box, the illustrations show what a narrator (presumably an adult) sees: a boring, old box.

With each increasingly incensed rebuttal, the illustrations mutate slightly to show what that box can become with just a little bit of imagination. Due to the relative simplicity of the illustrations, my second graders had no trouble catching on to how they worked and what they were trying to convey.

The spontaneous and sophisticated understandings that my students demonstrated surprised me; I had actually selected the book not to analyze its structure, but rather to discuss its message — that childhood curiosity is both valid and exhilarating, even if adults don’t understand it. And, that the book resonated so strongly with many of my students highlights that they do, perhaps, feel like adults don’t understand their imaginings.

Nicole's students are inspired by Not a Box by Antoinette Portis Nicole's students are inspired by Not a Box by Antoinette Portis

Following the reading of the book, my students channeled their creativity to make their own “not-a-box”-es. Their ideas ranged from body armor to a laptop to a castle. Clearly, Not a Box inspired my students to think outside the box. I can only hope that it will also inspire them to keep thinking innovatively, even as a culture of standardization and testing in schools threatens to undermine creativity. Now more than ever, it is essential that teachers seek out books that showcase the wonder and joy of thinking outside of the box.

Readers, if you know of a creativity-sparking book, please mention it in a comment!
Nicole Hewes
Nicole Hewes
Nicole Hewes is currently serving as an impact manager at a public elementary school with City Year New Hampshire. She previously taught second grade in rural Maine for two years and received an M.Ed in language and literacy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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