Magical birthdays

posted in: Katie Cleminson | 19
Photo: digitalART2
Photo: digitalART2

Just before Christmas it was M’s 5th birthday. We had a really happy weekend, first her birthday at home with just the 4 of us playing, playing, reading and playing, and then the following day enjoying ourselves enormously at her dinosaur party (which I’m so happy to report couldn’t have been a bigger success :-)). Although new books frequently find their way into our home I had been looking since the summer for something special with a birthday theme to give to her, and about a month before the big day I struck gold with Box of Tricks by Katie Cleminson (for some reason retitled as Magic Box in the US).

This perfect story opens with the birthday girl, Eva, receiving a very special present – a large cardboard box. As we all know, cardboard boxes are full of opportunities for imaginative, magical play when it comes to kids, and this box is no different. As if like Alice falling down the rabbit hole, Eva jumps into her box and is transformed into a master magician, able to conjure up delights, including what she wants more than anything else in the whole world – a pet polar bear called Monty.

Eva goes on to conjure up more fantastical magic tricks, throwing a wonderful party, with great food, great music and lots of carefree, joyful dancing, and when every one has had their full of celebrating Eva is able to magically click her fingers and quite by magic everything (well, almost everything…) vanishes.


I love this story because it captures the magic of the simple cardboard box and celebrates the power of imagination. Eva is a great little character – omnipotent, as all children like to be, and yet charming with it! She can magic up her greatest desires at will – an aspect of the story I’m sure appeals to M a great deal, even if she doesn’t express it quite in these terms 🙂

And if the story itself were not enough to make you love this book, the illustrations are fresh and gorgeous! Simple and uncluttered but oh so full of charm, delight, warmth and fun. Katie Cleminson primarily uses only 3 colours in her illustrations – black, red and blue, and pairs up her ink drawings with splatters and drops of paint (surely inspired by her declared passion for Jackson Pollock) that perfectly conjure up a sense of magic in the air.


I’m so glad I found this book, and if you have a birthday in the offing I couldn’t recommend it highly enough. We gave it to M along with a cardboard box and a large cuddly polar bear inside and it has definitely proved a big hit. I couldn’t be happier!

Inspired by Katie Cleminson’s illustrations we wanted to try imitating the splatter and drop technique used so effectively in the book. This is what we did.

1. We used a couple of tall candles to drip wax on to watercolour paper. By using tall candles M was able to do this herself and was mesmerised by the flame!



2. As soon as the wax had hardened (almost immediately) M used pipettes to drop liquid watercolours on to the paper. Initially she held her pipettes high in order to maximise the splatter of the drops on the paper, but then she became entranced by creating big bubbly domes of paint on the paper. To include J we gave her a piece of paper M had coverd with candle wax drips, and a paintbrush to do what she wished with.



3. We had to leave the paper to dry over night – M’s big bubbley drops took a few hours to dry. I think the results are lovely, and another successful variant on the wax-resist painting we tried before Christmas.




box_of_tricks_frontcover2Box of Tricks:

Whilst painting and attempting our own magic tricks with a large cardboard box we’ve been listening to:

  • Magic Moments by Perry Como – cheesy but still wonderful!
  • Polar Bear Blues by Gary Bowman
  • Three different songs about the wonders of cardboard boxes! One by Mr. Whit, one by Geof Johnson, and the third, by Keith Munslow

  • We also hope to try some of these activities:

  • Making wands like these from blueprints – an easy, but quite literally magical activity I think that would suit both M and J
  • Using this pattern for a cape from thelongthread so that M and J can dress up as magicians.
  • Creating a top hat, like this fantastic one from Heart of Rachel.
  • What favourite books have you given or received on birthdays? And do you know of any other great picture books with birthdays as a theme?

    19 Responses

    1. Sarah N.

      Happy Birthday M! Box of Tricks sounds delightful and the art your girls did is beautiful. We love cardboard boxes at our house. My girls just made a rocket out of one this week. Another great box about the power of a box is Not A Box by Antoinette Portis.

    2. Janelle @ Brimful Curiosities

      We have a 5yr b-day coming up here soon. I’ll make sure to look up that book. My daughter enjoyed holding a candle during our Christmas Eve candlelight service. I’m sure she’d love making wax splatter paintings.

      One of our favorite “box” books is Too Many Toys by David Shannon.

    3. Lee Wind

      This was a beautiful post – I loved learning about a great new PB, and the art project you did – a sort of kid’s encaustic – was SO inspiring! I can’t wait to try it with my kid!
      And I love that you gave the book along with a box and stuffed polar bear… what a sweet, sweet gift.
      Thanks for sharing – this really made me so happy to read.
      And thanks as well for joining in on The Comment Challenge. See, it’s already working! I’m here, and I’m commenting!
      Namaste and Happy Commenting,

    4. kim baker

      Wow, I’ll have to look for that book. What gorgeous illustrations.
      Thanks for including the activities and music to go with the theme. Very creative. Love it!

    5. Callista

      Wow. That book looks so cool and I LOVE the artwork you did. I’ll have to try that with my kids. I just hope they understand that they can only touch lit candles with my supervision and not whenever they feel like.

      As for birthdays, my one daughter turned 4 a week ago but we’re doing the party tomorrow. I already bought a gift though but I’ll keep it in mind. I love how you packaged it with a box and bear.

    6. Kara Parlin

      It’s a bit serendipitous of me to land on this birthday post when it is, in fact, my birthday 🙂

      I’m so glad you included photos of the inside pages. The book is gorgeous! The limited color palette reminds me of the Olivia books.

      I loved the idea of trying to recreate the art style after reading the book. Do you do anything special to display them?

      • Zoe

        Hi Kara,

        Many happy returns to you!
        For these pictures I’ve simply mounted them on coloured card and stuck them up on my kitchen cabinets – frames are SO expensive, and although I’m always on the look out for them in charity shops large ones in good condition are hard to come by.

        And hello to everyone else too – wow! So many visitors today. I’ve just made myself a coffee and am now off to explore all your blogs 🙂 Hope to see you again soon.

    7. Rasco from RIF

      Zoe, this is an incredible post and I am so glad I came by when I did and caught this birthday post! I have a great niece who turns four in May and while I am known as the great aunt who gives books I am always looking for fun “twists.” So, Miss Emilee will get this book with a box and I can already envision the polar bear I am going to get for her, I see it each time I go into the toy store…plus it is fun to print out a blog posting and give to Emilee’s mother as she can do the artwork you show as well with Emilee and the older daughter! Thank you again!

    8. Joyful

      When our boys were much younger we used to keep big boxes for them to transform into whatever they wanted. These boxes were big enough for an adult to fit it and enjoy the magic also.
      This is a great post.
      Enjoy Reading.


    9. Jaymie

      Love the idea of using a book to inspire a craft project! I can think of a few others that would work well for that. Thanks for the inspiration!

    10. Katie

      Hi and hello!

      Stumbled upon you from MotherReader’s comment challenge and I’ll definitely be coming back. I got so many fabulous ideas about what to do with this wonderful book (I’m a children’s/YA librarian) — I can’t wait to get to work and start building a “box” storytime. 😀

    11. AZ

      Yes – we love this book! It has a similar vibe to “Wave” by Suzy Lee, which is another dear favorite. The accompanying art your kids made is wonderful — How fun!

    12. Hannah Yemc

      A brilliant find this book has been! My daughter’s first birthday is coming up in February and her name is Eva. Perfect! I’ve waited a while to get hold of a hardback version but am spool pleased with what I’ve got as a real keepsake birthday book.

    13. On the Tidy Books bookcase|Review|Box of Tricks Katie Cleminson | Tidy Books - The Children's Storage Solution

      […] The appeal of this book is in the illustrations which bring Eva’s magic to life.  Katie Cleminson’s striking illustrations are black and white, and it is only when she becomes a magician and the musicians and dancers flow around her that the colour bursts from the page, using vibrant paint splodges and splats in a Jackson Pollock way.  The illustrations and the story are kept spare and pretty minimal, with lots of white space to let the reader use their own imagination to fill it out.  There is an interview with the author on the Booktrust site where she explains how she paints with a pipette. And the ever inventive Playing by the Book describes a Box of Tricks related art project. […]

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