If you look at some of the comments that have been made by professional reviewers about Barbara Lehman’s latest picture book, The Secret Box (Houghton Mifflin, March 2011), you will see that they accurately reflect her career as a picture book author/illustrator on the whole. “A provocative example of the complexity that can be conveyed using only pictures,” wrote Publishers Weekly about the book. “Lehman’s clean-lined, highly-detailed artwork creates an ingenious visual puzzle that invites repeated viewings and flights of imagination,” adds Booklist.
Yes, the same can be said for all of Lehman’s wordless picture books — enigmatic visual puzzles and conceptually sophisticated adventure stories, rich in magic and discovery. The 2005 Caldecott committee acknowledged the skill that goes into Lehman’s work with a Caldecott Honor that year for The Red Book (Houghton Mifflin).
In this latest flight-of-fancy—The Secret Box, another richly-layered, unpredictable wordless adventure tale—she celebrates imagination and friendship with visually striking cartoon art. In this story, a young boy from long ago hides a box of treasures under a floorboard. Years later, that building is a school, and a trio of boys finds the box, following the map inside to a surprise destination, one filled with children from many points along the timeline. Readers see the adventure will repeat itself for future children, thanks to the magic box. As I’ve already noted in one of my April Kirkus columns, which includes this title, Lehman leaves room for the child reader to piece out the story puzzle in many directions, something I always like to see in picture books.