Over the next little while I am going to be doing a series of posts on some of my favourite picture books. Some from my childhood and others I have discovered more recently.

Alice McLerran – Roxaboxen (illustrated by Barbara Cooney, Puffin Books, 1991)

There across the road, it looked like any rocky hill –
nothing but sand and rocks, some old wooden boxes,
cactus and greasewood and thorny ocotillo –
but it was a special place.

‘Roxaboxen’ is what the children named that hillside in Yuma, Arizona and under the influence of their imaginations it became a bustling marketplace and town, a wilderness and a battleground. Salvaging wooden crates and pieces of glass they created their own city to rival the one in which their parents went to work.

It is a beautiful story of community and childhood play and McLerran writes with a crisp matter-of-factness which captures perfectly the serious nature of a childhood game:
Everybody had a car.
All you needed was something round for a steering wheel.
Of course, if you broke the speed limit you had to go to jail.

The story closes with the children, now grey-haired grandparents, remembering Roxaboxen. Small objects would bring to mind the grand exploits of their childhood and that rocky hillside, now deserted, was still a special place. When I was read the story growing up I always took this as a kind of promise that my own escapades – protecting the compound with my teddy bear sidekick, or building dinky towns in the dirt for my matchbox cars – were also of real importance. It probably never occurred to me that the book was also written for grown-ups, as a validation of their nostalgia (which is how I now read it).

The irony in the story is that while the grown-ups look back longing to relive those childhood days, the games they played as children all expressed a desire to be grown-up. They built houses, drove cars and sold wares, feeling that they were doing something equivalent to their parents’ daily dues. Of course, there were differences. You had to earn currency at Roxaboxen, but ‘everyone had plenty of money’. Roxaboxen had a cemetery ‘but the only grave in it was for a dead lizard’. Roxaboxen had bandits, but at the end of play they would remove the hankies from around their faces and become your brothers again. It reflects the beautiful naivety of childhood where failure can only be fleeting.

The story is perfectly complemented by Barbara Cooney’s illustrations, which balances the coloured landscape with the doll-like figures scampering over the hills. Their games look like such fun it’s a wonder they haven’t made a video game of Roxaboxen so today’s children might experience something like it.

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