When Jack’s parents give him a mysterious box as a gift, he’s not sure what to expect. What could be inside? “Just put it down, Jack!” they urge him. Jack does as he’s instructed and waits with a bit of trepidation until—POP!—out of the box jumps a giant, smiling face. “What a silly toy!” laugh his parents. Jack doesn’t seem so convinced, but curiosity soon gets the best of him and he overcomes his wariness to befriend his strange new plaything.
Written and illustrated by Art Spiegelman, the acclaimed creator of Maus: A Survivor’s Tale and editor of the wonderful Little Lit series, Jack and the Box is a lighthearted tale that will surprise readers only familiar with the author’s heavier works. The majority of the book follows the interplay between Jack and his new toy, Zack. Scenes such as Jack asking Zack if he is in his box, only to be repeatedly met with responses of “No!” and finally “I am Out to Lunch!” are just the type of off-the-wall scenarios that beginning readers find hilarious.
The simple world of Jack and the Box is painted with soft, subdued hues and flat textures. Spiegelman uses background color in a clever, symbolic way that suggests Jack’s interactions with Zack may exist only in his imagination. When Jack’s parents are present, the backdrops are shaded in baby blue, and Zack never utters a word. But when Jack is all alone with his toy, the colors become warmer and more pronounced, and Zack comes to life, causing all manner of wacky trouble.
Unfortunately, Jack and the Box is not without its problems. Though the back-and-forth dialogue between Jack and Zack is funny, it seems a little too random and lacks a strong coherency in terms of narrative. Perhaps this is the point, and not knowing what will happen next makes the book something of a jack-in-the-box in and of itself. But I don’t think it quite works. To make matters worse, Jack and Zack’s interactions initially come across as cute little one-off jokes, but out of nowhere a brief subplot occurs in which Zack invites unwanted guests that wreak havoc on Jack’s home. It feels like a weak mimic of The Cat in the Hat. Furthermore, while Jack and his family are drawn as adorable rabbits, the design of Zack is reminiscent of a scary clown. I have a feeling Spiegelman intended for Zack to be depicted as “silly” (something the toy is referred to as multiple times throughout the story), but he simply looks creepy.
My criticisms aside, Jack and the Box is still a book I would suggest for adults to share with beginning readers. The humor will appeal to young children, and the vocabulary is never too challenging or obtuse. In addition, the use of color for different situations provides a great way to introduce children to the concept of symbolism. However, given the quality of Spiegelman’s past output, I am disappointed that Jack and the Box isn’t a tighter, more focused effort. Nevertheless, the book is still worth introducing to youngsters, especially those whose senses of humor are a little on the warped side.