Author: Mark Greenwood
Illustrator: Andrew McLean
Publication Date: August 1, 2018
Publisher: Walker Books Australia
Copy: Courtesy of the Publisher
Age Range: Age from 7 years
The Happiness Box a wartime book of hope is an inspirational true story set during World War II. I think it’s safe to say that this is probably not a book for everybody and maybe not a bedtime book for the very young but it’s definitely an important part of our history. I haven’t read it to my 4 year old but I do think that I might, though whether we read all of it at once will depend on his reaction.
I did have both of my older children read it. Master almost 10 and Miss 14 both read the book independently, and at completely different times. Both of them said they enjoyed the story and found it interesting, and that was all I could get out of them.
The Happiness Box is not quite what I expected, I knew it was a true story but for some reason I think I was expecting it to contain the book as well as the story of the book.
Sergeant “Griff” Griffin was in Singapore when they surrendered to the Japanese in 1942 and he became a prisoner of war in a military compound while many women and children were sent inside Changi Prison. The Happiness Box gives us a very broad account of what happened; focusing more on how the men kept up morale as the hardships mounted up with overcrowding, disease and dwindling supplies.
Griff found his escape from the harships in stories and he often thought of the children locked up in Changi Prison without anything to make them smile. In the lead up to Christmas the men thought it would be a good idea to make gifts for the children; the guards, and even the commander agreed. The men set about making wooden toys and Griff turned to words. He couldn’t make toys but he could write stories.
Griff wrote a story, illustrated by Captain Greener who was an artist. It was a story to offer hope to the children and help them chase away the fear. The character names proved unfortunate as the commander was suspicious of hidden messages as one of the characters shared a name with the British Prime Minister, so the book was ordered destroyed, and none of the gifts made it to Changi.
There were secrets hidden within the story but they were secrets designed to offer strength to the children, nothing nefarious or treasonous. The book survived the war and was handed back to the author after the liberation. It became a National Treasure and has toured Australia alongside other treasures from throughout our history. Everyone can now discover the secrets contained in The Happiness Box.
The wording is quite simple with realistic illustrations and the colour is quite subdued, in keeping with the subject matter. I think a vibrant book of illustrations would be too vast a contrast to the mood conveyed by the text. This book is set in the heart of the war, in a prisoner of war compound so there is scope for quite graphic and disturbing content. But the book is written for an audience from 7 years old so it’s quite broad and not too graphic.
The Happiness Box is an interesting look at a dark time in our history but this gives us a look at the ways that the men interred in these camps were able to boost morale and stay focused on getting through until the time they could return home. It’s a side that we don’t always see and it’s certainly something I had no knowledge of before reading this book.
In the last pages, after the story ends, there is a double spread page which gives some background of the original author and illustrator, the prison and the original book.
A picture book I would recommend for slightly older children, perhaps something I would read in the lead up to the significant remembrance days to broach wartime conversations. It seems to be one my older children would read again.