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The Classroom Bookshelf
Inside The Classroom Bookshelf

Mr. Cornell’s DREAM BOXES

Mr. Cornell’s DREAM BOXES
Written and Illustrated by Jeanette Winter
Published by Beach Lane Books
ISBN: 978-1-4424-9900-3
Grades 2-5
Book Review
“If you had lived on Utopia Parkway not so long ago, you might have walked past this house.” In that house, if you looked closely, as author-illustrator Jeannette Winter asks the reader to do, you would discover Joseph Cornell and his little “Wonderlands,” small, intricate worlds that he created and confined to shadow boxes made of wood and glass. But readers learn even more about Cornell than his famous boxes. They learn of his walks throughout New York City searching for treasures to fill his boxes, of the volumes of journals that he kept while lost in dreams and remembrances, how he cared for his brother, and how he loved cupcakes and sweets. Winter deftly introduces readers to the work of Joseph Cornell in a picture book that expertly uses only exactly as many words as are needed to spark interest in this quiet and interesting artist. Readers are brought into Cornell’s neighborhood and his imagination through Winter’s careful use of white space and color. The author’s note provides additional information about Cornell’s life and his personal connection with children, including his final exhibit, curated especially for them. Winter’s “tribute” to Cornell is more than that; it is an open invitation to children and adults everywhere to dream and create art. 
Teaching Ideas and Invitations
Utopia? The book begins on Utopia Parkway, the street where Joseph Cornell lived for most of his life. Have students explore the word utopia. What does it mean? What are its origins? Why might such a name influence a person who lives his life “in” it? Why might Jeanette Winter have thought it important enough to start the book this way?
Illustrator Study. Have students explore Winter’s illustrations. What do they notice about the use of color and white space? Next, have students explore other books that she has written and illustrated. What are the ways in which this book stands out as an outlier? In other books, particularly The Librarian of Basra, September Roses, and The Watcher, how does she use background color to help shape her narrative? How has she used line to “box in” and “open up” her illustrations? Why might she have chosen not to use those design features in this book? 

Found Objects and Cornell Boxes. How can your students find beauty in the ordinary? Go for walks looking for treasures, as Joseph Cornell did. Fall is a particularly delightful time of year to hunt for natural treasures, whether you live in the city, suburbia, or out in the country. What can your students find in the area around your school building? What can students find in the recycling bins within the school (wash items out perhaps, before using them)? What objects can students find in “string drawers” and other places in their houses or apartments? Next, have students organize their found objects. In the book, these objects are labeled by type (birds, shells, pipes, balls). Do your students want to categorize them in a different way? By color? Function? Shape? Material? Next, have the students list adjectives to describe the objects. Have them describe what is beautiful about each simple object, on its own, and connected to its original function. Next, have students create their own unique Cornell boxes using their found objects. Be sure to have students name their boxes, and draw upon their adjectives and descriptive writing to create a “museum card” to go along with it. Be sure to exhibit these in the hallways or at some central place in your school, like the library. It would be a lovely tribute to Cornell to display the boxes lower to the ground, as he did in his last exhibit in 1972, so that young children can see in. If you have a preschool class in your school, share the exhibit at their height.
Memories and Cornell Boxes.Winter says that Cornell “saw mostly dreams and memories, and he filled his boxes with them. Mr. Cornell remembered watching the ball in penny arcades. He remembered Coney Island…” She also writes of things that scared Cornell, such as “the endless sky.” What memories are important to your students? Do an “I remember” activity with students in their writing journals, where they list times special moments in their lives, being mindful that not all special moments are always happy moments. Have students select one moment to write about in a personal narrative, and then use that personal narrative to create a Cornell Box. Or, do the reverse, and have students use the objects they find, bring in, or create for their Cornell Box become the building blocks of their personal narrative.
Journal Writing. Journal writing is an important part of the language arts curriculum. If your students find it difficult to regularly write in their writing journals, this book may be the inspiration they need to get over a period of “writer’s block,” as Cornell’s journal writing (which filled over 30,000 pages!) inspired his thoughts and ideas and fueled his artwork. If you want to initiate journal writing as a classroom routine, this book, and its connection to visual art, can serve as a catalyst. In particular, you can ask students to think about and ponder Cornell’s memories. What was important to him? What memories important to them? 
Writers as Architects. We know that buildings are “structures” and they when they are built they are framed in ways that keep them sturdy. This holds true for writing as well. In this picture book, Winter uses Cornell’s house as an invitation into his life. For example, she first tells the reader that s/he might notice a light in the cellar window and a moving shadow. From there, she introduces Cornell and his art. Next, one might see him behind his house, in the backyard. Or, you might see him caring for his brother upstairs, or sitting at the kitchen table. Adopt this structure, that begins with a building, as a structure for writing about a loved one. Have students brainstorm people who are important parts of their lives. Next, have them draw a picture of that person doing things in different parts of his/her house or workplace. Together, as a class, identify the ways in which Winter works with Cornell’s house, and then have students adopt the structure to their own writing needs. Have students share their pictures and personal narratives with one another, and their loved ones.
Artist Biography Study. How do other artists express themselves? How did their art and their lives intertwine? Read this book along with other biographies of artists included in our entries on Henri Matisse, Diego Rivera, David Drake, and GeorgiaO’Keefe. How does the illustrator portray the art of the subject? How do the illustrations compare to the originals? Why might there be differences? Students can then compose their own biography of an artist. 
Grades 3-5
Critical Literacy
Who Defines Art?  What is art? How do your students define art? Who else defines it? Does the definition matter? Does one need to be formally trained to be an artist? What does it mean when a formally trained artist starts doing something novel, as Joseph Cornell did, and make little “Wonderlands?” Drawing on the resources about Cornell included in the Further Explorations below, have your students examine how they define art. Have students explore Bonnie Christensen’s picture book biography of Andy Warhol, who Joseph Cornell greatly influenced.
Further Explorations
Digital Resources
Jeannette Winter’s Page at Simon & Shuster
Joseph Cornell Boxes
Joseph Cornell Exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts  
(This website links to an online interactive exploration of his boxes, including video.)
Joseph Cornell Boxes at the Guggenheim Museum, New York
Cornell Biography and Boxes from the Museum of Modern Art, New York
Joseph Cornell Boxes at the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois
“Message in a Box,” PBS News Hour
PBS Video on Joseph Cornell 
Audio Story on Joseph Cornell on “All Things Considered” on NPR
Google Search of Joseph Cornell Box Images
Books
Christensen, B. (2011). Fabulous! A portrait of Andy Warhol. New York: Henry Holt.  

Winter, J. (2005). The librarian of Basra: A true story from Iraq. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Books for Young Readers.

Winter, J. (2004). September roses. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Winter, J. (2011). The watcher: Jane Goodall’s life with the chimps. New York: Schwartz and Wade.
Mary Ann Cappiello About Mary Ann Cappiello

Mary Ann is a professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former public school language arts and humanities teacher, she is a passionate advocate for and commentator on children’s books. Mary Ann is the co-author of Teaching with Text Sets and Teaching to Complexity.