When I work on a book I start by making a folder on my computer to keep everything together. Since the very first day I worked on this book the folder has been named Mystery Box. I didn’t have a title yet but knew I’d be creating a book about a cardboard box.
I had been working on a graphic design project and was using different parchment and paper textures for the background. I came across a cardboard box scan and I thought it would be really cool to make it look like I had drawn on the cardboard. I started envisioning this book that would look like cardboard. But what was the story. There have been a lot of books about cardboard boxes. One’s where kids prefer to box to the toy or one’s where the box becomes all kinds of things. Then it struck me, what if you came across a box and you wanted to know what was in it. What if it had a sign on it saying DO NOT OPEN! Would you give in to your curiosity and open it or would you decide to obey the rules and leave it alone? So I thought about a kid who imagines all kinds of things, good and bad, that could be in the box and the reasons why he should or should not open it.
It was fun thinking of the things that could be in the box, stuff that all kids love like puppies and cookies and childhood fears like tigers and monsters. I always envisioned the box as having a lid and I enjoyed blasting the lid in different directions depending on what was coming out of the box. The left image would always show Benny in reality with his imagined situation larger on the right hand page. (I had been advised by someone that I should give my characters names. In my first three books the children telling the story do not have names. Max was given a name in I Hate Picture Books! only after the story was finished and it is only used in the description on the back of the book.)
This book was being prepared while I was working with Ronnie Herman as my agent. She had some of the books that Random House had turned back to me (see the story of I’m Looking for a Dinosaur for that story) and I wanted to give her more. So I considered a couple of titles. I thought it might just be Do Not Open but that could refer to the book and not the box. She liked Do Not Open The Box, Benny! so that was to title we were going with. (Click the link to see the original book dummy.)
So Ronnie began showing this and my other titles from 2010 through 2012. I began getting frustrated with the process and started working on laying out a few of my books, including this one, to be published directly to the iPad. Then I wrote I Hate Picture Books! and everything changed. I told that story here about how I sent 4 books to Schiffer and they said yes to all of them. So after I sent them the files for The Angry Little Puffin I began serious work on refining this book and turning it into Do Not Open The Box!
Two things I did immediately, I completely redesigned Benny and decided to change the format from square to horizontal. I didn’t want Benny to look like the boy from Shadows On My Wall and I felt he needed to be larger in comparison to the box. I also refined my technique using the layers to get the texture to overlay the color so it looks like the cardboard texture is showing through. Forgive me if I don’t share exactly what I did, I have to keep some secrets.
I wanted to make sure the box on either page was always in the exact same spot. I was probably a bit anal-retentive about this but I decided to work on each spread in the same Photoshop file. The final file contained hundreds of layers and grew to well over 2 gigabytes which slowed my computer down a lot. It was only when I had the layout and much of the rendering finished that I split everything into separate files.
The book came out in January 2016. The book I illustrated for Julia Pinkney, Am I BIG Enough? was also released on that date. I had dedicated the book to my brother and sister and when we were doing the final layout it worked out that the design made a nice prelude to the story. Often before I read this book I ask kids if they know what a dedication is then explain it to the one’s who don’t. I then read the dedication: “To my brother Jody and my sister Tracy, who almost never played mean tricks on me.”
I had a nice surprise when I received my first author copy. Schiffer had decided to emphasize the cardboard on the cover by putting a spot gloss on the title, Benny and the box. It looks great and really jumps out and I had no idea they were planning it. The folks at Schiffer are great!
Also, I traveled furthest for a school visit due to this book. I became Facebook friends with the school librarian from a private school in Los Angeles, CA. She told me she was going to feature Do Not Open The Box! in her library program in the fall of 2017. She was even going to have a large box that her students would have to guess what was in it. After chatting back and forth she decided to bring me to her school to do my presentations. I had a wonderful time and got to spend a few days on the West Coast with some old friends.