The Classroom Bookshelf
Inside The Classroom Bookshelf

The Secret Box

The Secret Box
Written and Illustrated by Barbara Lehman
Published by Houghton Mifflin, ISBN 978-0-547-23868-5
Grades K-8
A postcard that states “Greetings from the Seahorse Pier;” a token and some ticket stubs; sepia photographs of a uniformed schoolboy and his mates; and a map with a route marked in red pencil… These are the contents of The Secret Box hidden beneath the floorboards on the top floor of a boarding school or perhaps an orphanage. Time passes and the landscape around the school changes from rural to urban as major development occurs. The box is discovered by modern children who spot the gazebo depicted on the map and follow the much changed but discernable route to the Seahorse Pier. There stands the boy in the photograph who invites them through a secret portal into a room where the passage of time is seemingly suspended, a room occupied by children of all races, dressed in clothing from many time periods. The cycle begins anew when another group of contemporary children lift the box from the floorboards. The open ending of this intriguing wordless picture book will have students debating and discussing the possibilities. Students will want to pore over the details in Lehman’s compelling watercolor, gouache, and ink illustrations to study the change over time in this location and to guess at what is really happening. Just like the magical journeys in Lehman’s other wordless picture books, this is an adventure readers will be happy to join.
Teaching Suggestions
Grades K -8
  • Storytelling in Pictures. Invite your students to study the techniques that authors use for storytelling when their medium is pictures. You may find Scott McCloud’s Making Comics a useful guide to examining the choices authors make when telling a story visually. The artist/ author makes decisions about which moments to feature, how to frame and focus the image (think camera lens), how to arrange the images to convey the flow of the story, and what medium and artistic style best match the content of the story. Ask your students why an author/artist might choose to tell a story with pictures rather than with words. Gather a collection of wordless books to examine the visual storytelling techniques of other artists / authors. A listing of wordless books is included below.
  • Interpreting Open Endings. Sometimes authors make the choice to leave the endings of their stories ambiguous to the reader. Some readers like this opportunity to imagine their own outcomes based on the story content; other readers may be frustrated by a lack of a definitive ending. Ask your students to describe what they think is happening in the story. Do the three modern children travel back in time? Are the children living in the room at the Seahorse Pier ageless? Is this a boarding school? An orphanage? Do the three modern children return the box to its place under the floorboards and then go to live with the children at the pier? What happens? Ask your students to write and/or draw an ending for this wordless book.
  • Author Study. The Secret Box is the fifth highly acclaimed wordless book by author Barbara Lehman. Obtain multiple copies of her books and conduct an author / illustrator study. Ask your students to identify patterns in setting, theme, character, and plot across the titles. Examine Lehman’s visual storytelling techniques in the books, such as her use of multiple frames on a page to depict the passage of time. Since limited online information is available about Lehman’s biography, consult with your local librarian to access a Something About the Author profile. The links below include an online video in which Lehman discusses her composition process with her book Rainstorm.
  • Treasure Maps. The Secret Box contains a map that leads children to the Seahorse Pier. Practice map-making skills by having students hide small objects somewhere in the classroom, school, or schoolyard and make a map of their locations. Students will enjoy following the maps to locate hidden objects. If you have access to GPS devices, older students might experiment with Geocaching (see the weblink below).
  • Time Capsules / Secret Boxes. The boy in the sepia photograph meant for other children to find his secret box and explore the treasures within and the treasure it leads to. Ask your students to think about and then to write about and to draw artifacts that they would put in a box for others to discover. The endpapers of The Secret Box provide a model for how students might draw the interior of their own box. Extend this activity with a discussion of time capsules. What is a time capsule? Why do people create time capsules? You may want to use the Voyager Mission as an example. The website below will take you to links that describe the images and music included in this emissary spacecraft. You might also choose to read aloud the Caldecott winning wordless book Flotsam by David Wiesner, which also features time capsule-like communication across time.
  • Magical Portals & Worlds. In The Secret Box, the children enter a secret door in the entrance to the Seahorse Pier and step into a time and space where children do not grow older. Entering a magical world or alternative reality through a door or portal of some kind is a common motif in children’s literature, found, for example, in the classics The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, and Alice in Wonderland. Ask your students to list the stories that they know which include this technique for travel to another place or time. Invite students to work in small groups or individually to write a scene in a fantastical story in which a character steps through a portal into another space or time.
  • Children’s Clothing. The room at the top of the entrance to the Seahorse Pier is filled with children. Their attire indicates that they were children during many different decades. Engage your students in research about different styles of children’s clothing popular across the decades. The Wisconsin Historical Society has an extensive collection of photographs of children’s clothing. This is a good starting point. You might also invite children to ask relatives if they have saved any items of clothing from previous generations of children in the family. Students may be able to bring in these items of clothing to show classmates. Explore your local resources to find out whether a historical collection of children’s clothing is accessible in your area. Ask students to think and write about how clothing has changed over time. You might also invite them to speculate about the clothing that kids will wear fifty years from now!
Critical Literacy
Grades 3-8
  • Change Over Time. The Secret Box can be paired with other titles that depict the development of cities over time to prompt a discussion about humankind’s impact on the earth. In Window and Home, both wordless books, author Jeannie Baker uses the medium of collage to show change in an area as babies grow to adults. Generations pass in the Virginia Lee Burton’s classic tale, The Little House, in which a house, whose original owner has decreed the house not for sale, is swallowed up by city buildings and overhead rails. Ask your students to discuss the authors’ intents in writing these books. What kind of message do these books send about urban development? Ask students to think about and discuss what is lost and what is gained when land is developed. You can make this activity more immediately relevant to your students by obtaining archival photographs that show change in your community over time. Have any major development projects sparked debate in the community? What actions did community members take to express their opinions and positions?
Further Explorations
Online Resources
Book Page: Meet Barbara Lehman
Burlington Book Festival Video: Barbara Lehman
Voyager: The Interstellar Mission
Geocaching: The Official Global GPS Cache Hunt Site
Wisconsin Historical Society: Children’s Clothing
Baker, J. (2004). Home. New York: Greenwillow.
  • A baby grows to adulthood as her urban neighborhood experiences renewal in this wordless book, which depicts change over time.
Baker, J. (1991). Window. New York: Greenwillow.
  • In this wordless book, a young boy grows from infancy to adulthood as the Australian bush outside his window develops into a crowded city.
Burton, V.L. (1969). The little house. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  • In this classic picture book, a little house who “couldn’t be sold” watches a city being grow up around her until she is reclaimed and relocated by a relative of her first owner.
Kent, P. (2010). Peter Kent’s city across time. New York: Kingfisher.
  • Detailed drawings and cross sections illustrates a city’s growth from prehistoric times into the future.
Lehman, B. (2006). Museum trip. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  • On a class trip to an art museum a young boy finds himself navigating the mazes featured in a special exhibit.
Lehman, B. (2007). Rainstorm. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  • On a rainy day, a young boy finds a key and a chest in his home; climbing inside he finds a ladder that leads to a sunny island and playmates.
Lehman, B. (2004). The red book. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  • A young girl finds a red book in a snow bank and discovers that it has the power to connect her to a boy on a tropical island who is reading a red book…
Lehman, B. (2008). Train stop. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  • While traveling on a subway with her parents, a young girl makes an unexpected stop to rescue a tiny pilot stuck in tree in a beautiful land inhabited by miniature people.
McCloud, S. (2006). Making comics: Storytelling secrets of comic, manga, and graphic novels. New York: Harper.
  • This informative guide focuses on both the words and pictures of these writing forms and provides a useful overview of visual storytelling techniques.
Weisner, D. (2006). Flotsam. New York: Clarion.
  • While all of David Weisner’s wordless books are notable, this Caldecott-winning title, in which a boy finds a camera on the beach and develops the pictures to follow the fantastical underwater journey of the camera, is a good match to The Secret Box because its ending also implies ongoing adventure.
More Wordless Books
Baker, J. (2010). Mirror. S0merville, MA: Candlewick Press.
Bang, M. (1980). The grey lady and the strawberry snatcher. New York: Simon & Schuster.
  • In this Caldecott Honor winning wordless picture book, the author makes brillant use of negative space to depict the grey lady’s escape from the rascal who wants to steal her strawberries.
Newgarden, M. & Cash, M.M. (2007). Bow-wow bugs a bug. Boston: Harcourt.
  • When a small black bug invades his home, Bow-wow chases him out the dog door and around the block, with some extraordinary encounters along the way.
Rogers, G. (2004). The boy, the bear, the baron, the bard. New Milford, CT: Roaring Brook Press.
  • In this time travel adventure, a young boy chases after his soccer ball into an old theater and finds himself in the middle of one of Shakespeare’s productions.
Erika Thulin Dawes About Erika Thulin Dawes

Erika is a professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former classroom teacher, reading specialist, and literacy supervisor, she now teaches courses in children’s literature, early literacy, and literacy methods. Erika is the co-author of Learning to Write with Purpose, Teaching with Text Sets, and Teaching to Complexity.