Book Review: The Treasure Box by Margaret Wild (Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014)

In my last Children and Young Reader’s round up for the Australian Women Writers Challenge, I challenged people to read and review more picture books. As we’ve been visiting the library more regularly, I thought it was an excellent chance to take up my own challenge.

treasure box

The Treasure Box
Margaret Wild and Freya Blackwood

2013, Library copy

This is, quite simply, a beautiful book. Over the last year I have been falling head over heels in love with Freya Blackwood’s artwork, and this book is another example of how she tells stories through pictures. From the endpapers with their fragments of pages, to the beautiful way the use of colour changes through the book, the first thing that strikes you is how attractive this book is.

Then you read the story. At the heart of it, it’s a simple story of displacement. But, with a closer look you see that it’s much more. The library in Peter’s city is bombed and the only book that survives is held by his father. When they need to leave the city, the book is carefully packed up and Peter’s father tells him that it is a treasure, a record of their people. They undertake a long journey to safety, enduring hardship and loss, until eventually Peter needs to leave the treasure in a safe place until he can retrieve it again. It’s a story that explores loss and hope at the same time.

Interestingly, this book has made me think about how we ‘allocate’ picture books to different ages. When I borrowed it from the library, I wasn’t necessarily thinking of it as a book Squirm would enjoy. I picked it up because I’d read a wonderful review of it and was interested in it myself. I don’t think you’d see this book on any lists of ‘books for 2 year olds’.

But Squirm loves it. He looks through it on his own, he requests it by name. When we read it he points out familiar things in the illustrations and is just starting to talk about what happens. This afternoon we talked about ‘cupping hands’ and what that looks like (the people in the book cup their hands to catch the fragments of books which fall from the sky). Obviously he doesn’t understand about war or enemies or the history of people being forced to move from their homes. But he understands the part about the book being treasure and about them keeping it safe – he builds his story from that point.

It reminds me of my experiences with reading The Red Tree (by Shaun Tan) with children of different ages. I’d read it with children between the ages of 7 and 12 and noticed that their thoughts and reactions were different depending on their age. They borrowed from what they knew – their schema – to make the book work for them. And no matter what their age, they all enjoyed it and made it meaningful to them.

I think in our need to classify things we can be too quick to move picture books (and other books) into age groups and by doing this we can also be too quick to say ‘no, you shouldn’t read that, it’s too old/young for you’. We forget that comprehension is more fluid than test writers would like to believe, completely built on our own experiences. The reader who is two will have a different experience of a book from the seven year old, the twelve year old, the eighteen year old or the thirty year old. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have the chance to experience the book at all.

This thought also applies to older readers who can read novels reading picture books, or competent readers who are reading adult books going back to read Young Adult or children’s novels. Earlier this year I reread some Robin Klein books which I enjoyed as a child. It was amazing how many things I saw in them that I hadn’t seen before, how many themes I now understood better from the benefit of adulthood. I can’t help but think that it’s important to give our children those experiences as well.

I really recommend The Treasure Box to readers of all ages. It’s a beautiful book for talking about language, for talking about books and stories and how stories are important to our history. It’s a beautiful book for talking about war and displacement and keeping promises as much as you are able to. It’s a beautiful book about hope.

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