The Happiness Box: a wartime book of hope by Mark Greenwood & Andrew McLean

Inside the CBCA Shortlist

The Happiness Box (Walker Books Australia) is written by a formidable pair of Australian picture book creators, Mark Greenwood and Andrew McLean, whose illustrations are in pen and watercolour.

An adult character, Griff (Sergeant Griffin), features. He is a prisoner of war in Singapore when surrender is imminent but is moved to notorious Changi Prison. The narrative describes the conditions inside the military compound. The men sleep behind wire on bamboo beds, eat poor food and suffer disease and extreme hardship. Prisoners try to boost morale by playing football and reading. Griff and other soldiers decide to make presents for the children in prison for Christmas. Some carve wooden toys but Griff writes and Captain Greener illustrates the original Happiness Box. Japanese General Saito forbids delivery of all the presents because one of the book’s characters is named Winston, also the name of the British Prime Minister. Starving, the prisoners build railways and bridges until the Japanese surrender and they are released. The prisoners then dig up the buried Happiness Box, which became a national treasure.

Factual information is recorded at the end of the story.

Mark Greenwood’s website is

Andrew McLean’s website is

Using the book with students:

Prediction Looking at the front cover before reading the book, children try to predict what the happiness box might be.

Cover and Contents After reading the story, children explain the relevance of the title and cover illustration to the book.

War Prison and Detention Centre What similarities might there be between a prison like Changi and a detention centre? Older students could compare conditions with the CBCA shortlisted novel for Older Readers, Between Us.

Writing a New Happiness Box We know from this book that The Happiness Box is about Winston the lizard, Martin the monkey and Wobbly the frog. They are friends “who discover a box that contains the secrets to happiness”. Other characters include “the bee that knew everything” and a wise tortoise. The secrets to happiness are “friendship, kindness, compassion, generosity, loyalty, faith, courage and hard work”. Students incorporate some of these into their own stories.

Natural Colours Captain Greener makes colours to illustrate the book using flowers, leaves and clay. Children make water-colours from natural items such as red rose petals, purple lavender, blue cornflowers, orange marigolds or wallflowers to illustrate their own stories. Petals could be blended with hot water using an electric blender or mortar and pestle or put into sealed plastic bags with water and crushed with a rolling pin. Clay can be used to make brown paint.

Read The Treasure Box by Margaret Wild & Freya Blackwood. What similarities do these two books share? Read other books by Mark Greenwood such as Jandamarra and Simpson and his Donkey. Read other books illustrated by Andrew McLean such as Bob the Railway Dog and A Year on Our Farm.

Which book would each student send to someone in prison or a detention centre?

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