If I didn’t have my seven year-old son and my four year-old daughter to draw upon for advice, I’m not sure I’d be able to review “Jack and the Box” fairly. Unlike the other Toon Books I’ve read, there’s little in “Jack and the Box” for an adult to enjoy. It lacks the beautiful artistry of “Benny and Penny” or “Stinky,” and it doesn’t even have the complexity of the shockingly simple “Otto’s Orange Day” or “Mo and Jo.” What it has, instead, is a whole lot of repetition and sparse drawing, done by the great Art Spiegelman.
Spiegelman has never been a great comic book stylist — or if he has been, then his most successful style has been that of stark minimalism, at least visually. His roots in Underground comics might have given his earlier work a stronger sense of visual clutter, but even on the most densely-packed pages of “Maus,” his simple, iconic characters and straightforward compositions unified the look. But even with all that in mind, “Jack and the Box” is distilled simplification.
It’s not, however, so unorthodox a look for a classic children’s book. It has a bit of a Crockett Johnson vibe, but instead of Harold and his imaginative purple crayon, we get Jack (a bunny) and a box (with a clown inside named Zack). Each two page spread is a series of four panels, although Spiegelman plays with the cant of the panels a bit, shifting them clockwise or counterclockwise to emphasize the tension in the scene, even as the characters remain stationary. But, otherwise, the book is visually repetitious.
It’s linguistically repetitious as well, as the characters say the same lines over and over, with slight variations, a strategy particularly useful in teaching young readers since the words rhyme and there’s very little vocabulary to learn. My four year-old couldn’t quite read the book on her own, but she learned the phrases pretty quickly and had fun repeating them along with the characters.
But without my seven year-old son’s input, I’m not sure I would have given this book three and a half stars. From my jaded perspective, the book looks too simple, even for a child. And if it’s repetition and rhyming you want, why not go with Dr. Seuss, who draws better than Spiegelman? But my son laughed out loud reading this book to himself, because Jack the clown is a devious little toy, and he was constantly surprised by the absurd twists in the story. A talking toy is nothing new in children’s literature, but this one is surprisingly weird in a relatively short number of pages. And my daughter thought the book was as funny as my son did (and, no, she wasn’t just laughing at her older brother, because he wasn’t even around when I read it to her).
So I guess that’s what makes “Jack and the Box” work so well for young readers. Like a jack in the box toy, there’s an element of scary surprise inside this book, and two out of two kids in my house seem to love it.