In January the American Library Association met in Philadelphia to award a variety of prizes (including the Caldecott Medal, the Newbery Medal, the Printz Award, the Coretta Scott King Book Awards and the Theodor Seuss Geisel Award) for outstanding achievement in the field of children’s literature.
This year’s Caldecott winner was the picture book “Locomotive” by Brian Floca. Honors went to “Journey” by Aaron Becker, “Flora and Flamingo” by Molly Idle, and “Mr. Wuffles!” by David Wiesner. All of these are excellent choices, and the good news is that because of this recognition, all four books will be in print until the end of time, thus ensuring that future generations of children can enjoy them, too.
However, as always there were many worthy and memorable books that weren’t honored and that will, sadly, fade into obscurity. This has been the case with one of my all-time favorite picture books — “Dora’s Box.”
“Dora’s Box,” by Ann-Jeanette Campbell and illustrated by Fabian Negrin, was published in 1998. It’s a brilliant reframing of the Pandora myth, which tells how all the world’s evils — famine, war, pestilence and illness — are released when a curious young girl opens a forbidden box.
Campbell’s story examines what would happen if there were, in fact, no earthly sorrow in an individual’s life. In “Dora’s Box,” a well-meaning mother and father are determined to protect their beloved daughter from pain — and to that end they store anything that can hurt the young girl in a magical box: thorns, hot coals, splinters from a charred tree, the sting of a bee. And the girl Dora does, in fact, grow up to be remarkably happy. She never exhibits anger. She never pouts. She is always pleasant and good-natured.
The author notes, however, that there is something unnatural about such a child. “Dora liked the forest, especially the birds. But the birds thought there was something peculiar about the little girl who was never anything but happy. She didn’t seem to be real flesh and blood.”
The problem, of course, is that because Dora herself has never experienced pain or sorrow or frustration or disappointment or boredom, she cannot empathize with those who do. She cannot feel with or for her fellow human beings.
I first read this story when my husband and I were still in the thick of raising our five boys. Like most parents, we wanted all of Life’s Creamy Good Stuff for them. We wanted them to make good grades and be picked for all-star teams and have lots of friends. We wanted them to enjoy good health — physically and mentally. We wanted to protect them from the things that might hurt them. We didn’t want them to be overlooked or hurt or marginalized or misunderstood.
But they were sometimes. Just as all children are.
And as everyone who has loved a child knows, his or her pain becomes your pain.
“Dora’s Box” came into my life at a time when I was struggling with this reality. And the story served to remind me of something I already knew — that there can be no true growth without moments of suffering. In that respect, this remarkable picture book written for children spoke deeply to me as an adult.
But like many notable books, “Dora’s Box” ultimately came and went without much notice. Too bad. Because all parents should own a copy and read it regularly to remind them about the dangers of overprotecting those we love most.
Ann Cannon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or facebook.com/anncannontrib.