Although I featured the books of Barbara Lehman in a post I wrote in 2008 and recently updated titled How to Read a Book Without Words (Out Loud), I have yet dedicate a whole review to one of her books. No better time than now, especially with the release of her newest book, The Secret Box. I can't tell you in words just how much I love all of Lehman's books, all of which are wordless journeys through different magical times and places. Where David Weisner, another master at the wordless picture book, has an eye for magical journeys full of fantastical details, Lehman's books, while equally rich with details, are less painterly and more comic-like in illustrations style. Also, while both authors explore flights of imagination, Lehman's books, all of which are populated with curious, adventurous children, are, while rooted in reality, about the small everyday things that can transport you another time and place. In an interview with Jenny Brown for Kirkus, Brown noted that, "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?" Lehman responded, "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 [in my books]. I love how small, regular items 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." I love that idea. Not only does it invite the reader to begin to see the world around him or her in a new way, but it empowers the (young) reader to feel that the sometimes small world s/he lives in might still have undiscovered wonders in it.
The Secret Box, which, as a book itself, is beautiful. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has published all five of Lehman's books and each one has the a little extra treat when you remove the dust jacket. When you take the jacket off The Secret Box it looks just like the saltwater taffy tin that the is hidden under the floorboards at the start of the story. The back advertisement offers an "Escape from the humdrum with Seahorse Pier Saltwater Taffy for a taste of the seaside anytime!" Lehman even goes so far as to paint in a few smudges and stains here and there on the tin.
Lehman, who herself was given a box of prized childhood items by her neighbor when she was in her 20s containing items that dated back to 1908, begins her story with a boy in the past hiding the box under the floor bards of a room high up in a building. The story telescopes into the future, showing the development that has gone on around the building where the boy hid the box.
Now three children have discovered the box and, as they sort through the contents, old photos, maps and coins, they decide to follow the clues to Seahorse Pier.
Lehman's books all have magical, wonderful journeys woven into them and The Secret Box is no exception. When the children reach the pier, the boy from the beginning of the story beckons them into a hidden room that turns out to be a secret hideout for kids from many different time periods having a grand old time.
What might not be immediately evident to young readers is that this children are all residents at an orphanage, although I guess they go by different names today. It's up to you whether or not you want to talk about that with your kids when you read this book to them. In fact, you and your kids can make up almost any story you want to go with any of Lehman's marvelous books, which is one of the reasons I love reading books without words. Lehman provides this amazing framework of a story with rich, colorful illustrations and intimate details, leaving the readers to fill in the story between the pages.
I hope you will seek out any one of Barbara Lehman's books to read to your little ones. I have no doubt that reading one (or all) will spark imagination, creativity and conversation between you!