Review Blog

Aug 21 2018

The happiness box by Mark Greenwood

cover image

Ill. Andrew MacLean, Walker Books, 2018. ISBN 9781925081381
(Ages: 6+) Highly Recommended. Themes: War. Prisoners of war. Children in war. World War Two. Changi Prison (Singapore). Sgt Griffiths (Griff) was a prisoner of war, detained by the Japanese for three years in Selarang Barracks and then the notorious Changi Prison on Singapore Island, the aftermath of a terrible defeat for the Australian Imperial Force in 1942.
Here he watched the children and women of Singapore marched into the prison and as Christmas approached he wondered what sort of Christmas these children would have. He and other prisoners than used every scrap they could find to make presents for the children, and Griff began to write a story, one that encapsulated hope and happiness. The story revolved around three animals and another of his peers, Captain Greener, illustrated the book. But when it was inspected by the Japanese General, he rejected it saying it held secret messages. It was to be destroyed. Another of the prisoners took it to get rid of it, instead burying it and at the end of the war it was dug up, a little worse for wear, but impressive in its hope for peace and happiness for the imprisoned children.
It was published in 1947 and again in 1991, the original now held at the State Library of New South Wales, where it was part of a touring exhibition in 2007.
Greenwood's story of this book is inspirational, showing the survival mechanisms of people entrapped by war. Despite their appalling situation, the men were involved in helping the children of the camp, offering them solace and hope in the midst of unimaginable suffering and despair. That the book survived is another story that resonates hope, and it has become an icon in its own right.
MacLean's pen and watercolour illustrations rely on a palette of browns and greys, ochres and greens to reflect the sombre, dreary nature of everyday life in the prison. There is no variance, no colour, no hope, except for the toys being made and the colours used to illustrate the book. The contrast is outstanding and underscores the belief that life will go on, that colour will return.
Behind the story of the book, readers will see the life led by the POW's and the women and children within these walls. MacLeans' illustrations realistically evoke the times with drawings of the men lying on their bamboo bunks, or watching over the walls towards the barracks, or being taken away to assured death working on the Burma Railway. Biographies of the author and the illustrator of The happiness box are given at the end, alongside a brief history of the book itself, and a bibliography encouraging readers to further research the story.
This book offers a fresh approach for classes to look at Australia's involvement in World War Two and the affects of war on children.
Fran Knight

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