Listen: Mark Greenwood in conversation with Stephen O’Doherty.
The Children’s Book Council of Australia Book Week theme this year is ‘Find Your Treasure’ and that’s exactly what a new children’s book from Walker Books, The Happiness Box is all about. Author Mark Greenwood and Illustrator Andrew Mclean, are an award-winning team who have brought to life the inspirational true story of a book that became a National Treasure.
The original World War Two story The Happiness Box is about three animal best friends who find a magical box and embark upon a journey through the jungle to discover the secret of happiness.
A gift for children
In 1942, Australian sergeant Sir David “Griff” Griffin was a prisoner of war (POW), held for three years and seven months in Changi Prison, Singapore. With Christmas approaching, the POWs decided to make gifts for the children interned in the prison.
Not handy with tools, like the other men who made toys for the children, Griff decided to make a book called The Happiness Box to chase away fear and inspire hope. The book was illustrated by fellow POW, Captain Leslie Greener.
Characters all people the children knew
The Happiness Box tells the story of three best friends, Winston the lizard, a Martin the monkey and Wobbly the frog, who find a magical box and embark upon a journey through the jungle to discover the secret of happiness. The characters were all based on familiar people the children knew from the prison.
The Happiness Box was said to contain the secrets to happiness, but the enemy was suspicious when they realised one of the characters was named Winston. This was the name of the British Prime Minister and the Japanese suspected the POWs were trying to smuggle out secret communications.
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A book about a buried book was buried
The Prison Commander, General Saito, who had approved the gift making, flew into a rage and ordered all the gifts be destroyed. However, the book survived the war, having been buried by a senior officer in a cordite container. After the Japanese surrender, the book was returned to its author.
Written in extreme circumstances, the original book holds a prominent place in both Australian and Singaporean children’s literary history.
A National Treasure
In 1990, Sir David Griffin donated the original book to the State Library of New South Wales, where it remains to this day. Between 2005 and 2007, hundreds of thousands of Australians saw the original book when it toured the country along with Sir Don Bradman’s cricket bat, Ned Kelly’s helmet and more than one hundred significant items, in the National Treasures from Australia’s Great Libraries exhibition.
An orchestral version
It has become a musical treasure too. The Happiness Box was adapted and scored for young audiences by award-winning composer Bryony Marks to capture the sense of wonder, trepidation and delight of the friends’ adventure. Greener’s beautiful illustrations from the 1947 edition of book accompany the narration and music.
As well as introducing children to the sounds of the orchestra, The Happiness Box’s themes are timeless and universal: the value of kindness, resilience, industriousness, humour, courage, and most importantly: the value of friendship.
In eleven performances between 8-11 May 2013, more than three thousand children aged between 3-7 enjoyed the world premiere of The Happiness Box by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra conducted by Brett Kelly, with acclaimed actor Stephen Curry as narrator.
You can see it performed at the Sydney Opera House in November 2018 by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and narrated by Children’s TV presenter Jay Laga’aia.