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Find more Classroom Connections
The ubiquitous and unassuming cardboard box takes center stage in these picture books, which celebrate resourcefulness, creativity, and the power of the makerspace in play.
Marvinville: A booming metropolis with must-see sites. A skyscraper! A car wash! A record store! And it’s easy to visit via Marvinville International Airport! Where is Marvinville, you ask? On a living room floor in Michigan.
Last year, my nephew attended remote kindergarten in the morning. In the afternoon he immersed himself in a self-guided STEAM endeavor. Equipped with essential makerspace supplies such as tape, scissors, and markers, he transformed cardboard boxes into a parallel universe. Marvinville became not only an astounding art project but also a visual representation of what my nephew knew about engineering, city planning, and the world.
The cardboard box was invented more than 200 years ago. Since then, generations of children have integrated these boxes into their play; the cardboard box was even inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 2005. Its availability, durability, and malleability has ensured that each child can bring their own experience, imagination, and resources into play, transforming a simple box into a unique toy or set of toys.
The books listed below offer numerous examples of imaginary play with cardboard boxes. These books encourage fantasy as well as resourcefulness; they call out as a reminder that a “stay at home” day does not have to be mourned for what it isn’t but can be celebrated for what it is. Grab some cardboard boxes, tape, scissors, and markers, and create your own city!
Big Friends. By Linda Sarah. Illus. by Benji Davies. 2016. 32p. Holt (9781627793308). PreS–Gr. 2.Birt has a friend named Etho. They both have large cardboard boxes and big imaginations. One day, a new boy name Shu arrives on the scene—and he loves playing with boxes, too. Three can be a challenging number for friends, and Birt feels unsure, sad, and even a bit mad! Ultimately, though, three is just the right number for riding in a “Monster-Creature-Box Thing.”
The Birthday Box. By Leslie Patricelli. Illus. by the author. 2009. 26p. Candlewick (9780763644499). PreS–K.Baby unwraps a birthday present—it’s a box! What could be better than a box? But wait! There’s more! There is something in the box! Baby finds a new best friend in the box—A PUPPY! Baby and Oscar the puppy turn their attention from each other back to the box, where they continue the celebration with an expedition. Jumping in the box, they fly a plane, sail in a ship, ride a sled, and finally a take a snooze in their cozy cardboard bed.
Box: What Would You Do with a Box? By Min Flyte. Illus. by Rosalind Beardshaw. 2016. 20p. Candlewick/Nosy Crow (9780763689391). PreS–K.Thomas, Alice, Sam, and Nancy are surrounded by boxes: big ones, small ones, and all sizes in between. All of the boxes have something in them, but what is to be done now that the room is filled with toys and boxes? The children begin to stack, connect and decorate the boxes until they have castles, ships, rockets, and trains.
Boxitects. By Kim Smith. Illus. by the author. 2020. 40p. Clarion (9781328477200). K–Gr. 3.At home, Meg is a “boxitect” who can make anything out of cardboard boxes. Meg’s proud mother sends her to Maker School where Meg learns more about “boxitecture.” One day another “boxitect” named Simone arrives at Maker School and Meg struggles with not feeling special. Ultimately, during a maker competition, Meg learns not only the value of her gift but also the importance of collaboration and the value of a friend.
Bunny’s Staycation. By Lori Richmond. Illus. by the author. 2018. 32p. Scholastic (9780545925891). K–Gr. 3.Mama is going on a business trip. Bunny sadly thinks about all of the daily routines without her, so creative Papa suggests that they make plans of their own for a STAYCATION! Bunny and Papa pack their cardboard-box car and travel to different places (around the house): the tropics, a wintry wonderland, a grassland safari trip. At the end of the week, Mama comes home to find a surprise awaiting her: a family camping trip (in the living room)!
The Firefighters. By Sue Whiting. Illus. by Donna Rawlins. 2008. 32p. Candlewick (9780763640194). PreS–Gr. 2.An alarm bell sounds in the classroom, and Mrs. Iverson and the children jump into their large cardboard boxes—that is, fire engines—and head out to the yard to put out a “fire.” Once the fire is extinguished, a siren sounds and—surprise! (Well, a surprise to everyone but Mrs. Iverson.) Actual firefighters arrive in their fire truck to talk with the students about fire safety.
Grace and Box. By Kim Howard. Illus. by Megan Lötter. 2021. 32p. Feiwel and Friends (9781250262943). PreS–Gr. 1.Friends come in all shapes and sizes, and Grace finds a unique friend in Box. Box’s old job was to protect a refrigerator, but now Grace has new plans. Each day Grace assigns Box a new identity, from a rocket to a submarine. After a week’s worth of adventures, Box is looking a bit distressed, and so, being a good friend, Grace attempts to tend to Box. A much-restored Box and Grace then forge into the next week, ready for further adventures.
Harry’s Box. By Angela McAllister. Illus. by Jenny Jones. 2003. 32p. Bloomsbury (9781582347721). K–Gr. 2.Harry is helpful and industrious. After grocery shopping with his mother, he helps to empty the box and then immediately turns it into assorted props for a day of imaginative play. With his dog and a cast of stuffed animals, Harry becomes everything from a shopkeeper to an octopus navigating the seabed. Ultimately the box becomes a “snug bed” for a tired adventurer and his companions.
I Am Otter in Space. By Sam Garton. Illus. by the author. 2015. 32p. HarperCollins/Balzer+Bray (9780062247766). K–Gr. 2.Otter Keeper takes Otter to the museum. Otter loves the outer-space exhibit, and he now longs for a moon rock. Back at home (and without the proper supervision of Otter Keeper), Otter and his stuffed-animal pals plan for a trip to the moon. Otter dresses in a cardboard-box space suit, and his cardboard-box rocket launches from a slide to land “on the moon.” Otter collects a moon rock and returns home, where Moon Rock is adopted into the family.
If I Could Drive, Mama. By Cari Best. Illus. by Simone Shin. 2016. 40p. Farrar (9780374302054). PreS–KOpen the book and see how Charlie has assembled his supplies for transforming a large cardboard box. Turn the page, and all the work is done: “A brand new car!” Charlie and his mama road trip around the house to exotic places such as the library (a bookshelf), Daisy’s Dress Shop (Mama’s closet), and the aquarium (the fish tank).
King Jack and the Dragon. By Peter Bently. Illus. by Helen Oxenbury. 2011. 32p. Dial (9780803736986). PreS–K.Jack, Zack, and Caspar turn a cardboard box into a castle. Now comes the hard work of defending the fortress from dragons and assorted beasts! When the sun sets, giants take Sir Zack and Caspar home to bed, leaving King Jack to attempt and hold the fortress by himself. Nighttime noises and creepy shadows soon alarm Jack, and he peeks outside of the castle to see a thing! But, of course, it is Jack’s parents who have come to carry him to bed (phew).
A Long Way. By Katherine Ayres. Illus. by Tricia Tusa. 2003. 32p. Candlewick (9780763610470). PreS–1.The plot is simple: a little girl delivers a package to her grandmother. What adds a rich complexity to this story is the little girl’s imagination and creativity. With a cast of companions (a dog, a turtle and a chicken) and a big cardboard box, the little girl travels by car, boat, plane, and subway to ultimately arrive at her grandmother’s house—which is more or less next door.
Mabel and Sam at Home. By Linda Urban. Illus. by Hadley Hooper. 2018. 60p. Chronicle (9781452139968). PreS–Gr. 2.It is moving-in day and Mabel and her brother, Sam, are soon surrounded by many empty moving boxes. One would think that moving was enough of an adventure, but clearly it’s much more fun when you can commandeer a large cardboard box, christen it the “Handle with Care,” and set sail on the ocean blue.
A Mighty Fine Time Machine. By Suzanne Bloom. Illus. by the author. 2009. 24p. Boyds Mills & Kane (9781590785270). PreS–Gr. 1.Sam the anteater is concerned. Her friends Grant the aardvark and Antoine the armadillo have made a dubious transaction: 20 Yummy Gummys and a bag of Buggy Bonbons for a “do-it-yourself time machine” that looks suspiciously like a giant cardboard box. After numerous attempts to travel through time, it is clear the time machine simply does not work. It also become clear that this box can serve another purpose: as a do-it-yourself bookmobile!
My Book Box. By Will Hillenbrand. Illus. by the author. 2006. 32p. Clarion (9780152020293). PreS–K.Elephant and Frog offer to help the reader brainstorm answers to the question, “What can I do with a box?” With each page turn, it soon becomes clear that the real question is, what can’t you do with a box? Early pages offer ideas such as bug box, pizza box, and (stinky) sock box. Midway through the book, our heroes agree that the best use of the box they can think of is for books. Instructions on how to “Make your very own book box!” are provided on the last page of the book.
Nelly Gnu and Daddy Too. By Anna Dewdney. 2014. 40p. Viking (9780670012275). PreS–K.Nelly Gnu’s father is a master architect—of cardboard boxes. Together, Nelly and her father make a house for Nelly. The house is a little bit plain, so off they go to the store to pick up a few supplies. The new cardboard house gets a coat of paint. Now it is perfect and ready to be a nighttime retreat.
Not a Box. By Antoinette Portis. Illus. by the author. 2007. 32p. Harper (9780061123221). PreS–K.The rabbit on the cover of this book means business. The reader may think that the rabbit has a box, but the rabbit is here to tell you that this “not a box” is a car, a mountain, a robot, and a rocket. A “not a box” can really be just about anything . . . just not a box.
The Nowhere Box. By Sam Zuppardi. Illus. by the author. 2013. 40p. Candlewick (9780763663674). PreS–Gr. 2.George is exasperated with his two little brothers, who are always underfoot. So he pinpoints an escape plan in the form of a washing-machine box. After making a few modifications, he heads out to “Nowhere.” The box transforms with each new adventure, and George is beyond ecstatic. But soon, he starts to feel like something is missing: companionship. (A word of caution for teachers: the last page features a sibling sword fight.)
Toby’s Doll’s House. By Ragnhild Scamell. Illus. by Adrian Reynolds. 1999. 32p. Sterling (9781862330269). PreS–Gr. 2.Toby only wants one thing for his birthday: a dollhouse. His grandad declares that what Toby really wants is a fort! Toby’s dad counters, what Toby really wants is a car-park! Auntie thinks that what Toby really wants must be a farm! When it is time for Toby to open his gifts, he receives a fort, a car-park, and a farm. Toby is gracious, and then while his grandad, aunt and dad play with Toby’s new toys, Toby takes the empty boxes and makes . . . a dollhouse.
Ty’s Travels: All Aboard! By Kelly Starling Lyons. Illus. by Nina Mata. 2020. 32p. Harper (9780062951120). PreS–K.Ty wants to play with his family, but they all gently tell him they are busy right now. Ty quickly spies a cardboard box that he turns into a train, and off he goes. Ty arrives at the first stop, and who should climb on board but Daddy! The train chugs along to the second stop, and Mommy flags them down. At the next stop is his brother Cory. The family continues on until they arrive back home just in time for dinner.
Welcome Home, Mouse. By Elisa Kleven. Illus. by the author. 2010. 32p. Tricycle (9781582462776). PreS–K.Kindhearted Stanley the elephant wants to help his mother make a pizza. After a series of unintentional kitchen accidents, Stanley’s mother decides the most helpful thing he can do is to go the grocery store to buy more tomatoes. On the way to the store, Stanley’s ball hits Mouse’s house, collapsing it. Stanley promises to build Mouse a new “surprise house.” Mouse is skeptical but joins him as Stanley collects objects along the way to create a lovely new house for Mouse, with the help of a tomato box.
Welcome to Your Awesome Robot. By Viviane Schwarz. Illus. by the author. 2013. 32p. Flying Eye (9781909263000). PreS–Gr. 3. 646.478083.This book is part instruction manual, part graphic novel, part workbook. Put all the parts together, it is a wholly exceptional resource for a transforming an ordinary cardboard box into an extraordinary robot.
What Next, Baby Bear? By Jill Murphy. Illus. by the author. 1984. 32p. Dial, o.p. PreS–K.While Mother Bear prepares a bath for Baby Bear, Baby Bear prepares a quick trip to the moon. Baby Bear puts on his helmet (a colander) and space boots (rainboots), grabs his teddy bear, and hops in a cardboard box labeled, “Fragile.” Baby Bear blasts off through the chimney, picks up an owl on the way, and then lands on the moon. Owl and Baby Bear have a quick picnic before Baby Bear returns just in time for his much-needed bath.
What to Do with a Box. By Jane Yolen. Illus. by Chris Sheban. 2016. 32p. Creative Editions (9781568462899). PreS–Gr. 1.“A box! A box is a wonder indeed. The only such magic that you’ll ever need.” This book offers gentle suggestions for what to do with a cardboard box, from the practical to the fantastical and from solitary to social.
Willy and the Cardboard Boxes. By Lizi Boyd. Illus. by the author. 1991. 32p. Viking, o.p. PreS–Gr. 1.Willy goes to work with his father, where they unpack a large delivery of computers. With a lot of empty boxes and assorted supplies from Dad, Willy soon takes off in a plane, goes fishing, crawls through a tunnel, rides a horse, drives a car, rides in an elevator, and takes a trip to the circus. Willy “heads back” to the office, where his father is ready to head home. They have both had a long day at work!
The Birthday Box: Author/Illustrator Leslie Patricelli’s website offers downloadable Baby coloring pages: lesliepatricelli.com/fun-stuff#/things-to-do/Bunny’s Staycation: Scholastic offers downloadable activities for children and “Tips for travel-for-work parents and their little bunnies”: kids.scholastic.com/kids/book/bunny-s-staycation-by-lori-richmond/Grace and Box: Author Kim Howard’s website offers a variety of downloadable activities for assorted grade levels: kimhowardbooks.com/resources/Not a Box: Author/illustrator Antoinette Portis’ website offers downloadable activities: antoinetteportis.com/activities/The Nowhere Box: The Reading Is Fundamental (RIF) website has assembled a variety of extension activities: rif.org/literacy-central/book/nowhere-boxI Am Otter in Space: For everything Otter, visit the I Am Otter website iamotter.co.ukTy’s Travels: All Aboard! HarperCollins offers downloadable activities for the Ty’s Travel series: icanread.com/characters/tys-travels/Welcome Home, Mouse: On her website, Elisa Kleven showcases photographs of her childhood cardboard dollhouses that inspired this book: elisakleven.com/about-elisa
Kristin Rydholm, a frequent contributor to Book Links, has worked as a teacher, reading specialist, and school administrator.
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