Mark Greenwood on writing The Happiness Box

by |August 30, 2018

mark greenwoodWriting The Happiness Box
by Mark Greenwood

What are the secrets to happiness?

I expect the answers are different for everyone. But would your ‘secrets’ change if life was suddenly turned upside down and you found yourself in extreme circumstances?

In 1942, after the fall of Singapore to the Japanese forces, Australian soldier Sergeant David “Griff” Griffin became a prisoner of war in a military compound outside Changi Prison, where women and children were interned. With Christmas approaching, it was suggested that POWs make presents to boost the morale of Changi’s young prisoners.

Sergeant Griffin wasn’t good at making wooden toys so he decided to write a book, to chase away fear and give the children hope. The Happiness Box was the tale of three jungle friends – a gecko, a monkey and a frog – who discover the secrets to happiness. The book was typed, illustrated and bound by fellow prisoners in less than 48 hours.

But the enemy was suspicious. They suspected one of the characters, named ‘Winston’, was a code for Winston Churchill. Before the book was destroyed, Sergeant Griffin’s mates managed to secret it away and bury it in an ammunition container within the grounds of the prison. After the war, the book was recovered, returned to the author and later published.

Between 2005 and 2007 The Happiness Box toured Australia along with Sir Don Bradman’s cricket bat and Ned Kelly’s helmet as part of the ‘National Treasures from Australia’s Great Libraries’ exhibition.

mark greenwood

I’m interested in blending history and story to create picture books with resonance – a quality captured by the words and art that evokes images, memories and emotions. Resonance is the beating heart of a story. It’s what is lurking deep beneath the surface. It’s what makes The Happiness Box meaningful and important…and personal.

When I was ten, I couldn’t wait for the weekend when I could spend time with my step-grandfather. After working around the farm, looking after horses and the sheep, Eric and I would sit together as mates, watching war movies and westerns. At some point in the afternoon, Eric would start drinking.

My nana said Eric had nightmares and was not always as gentle and kind as he was with me. Once she showed me a photograph of him taken after the war. He was not the big, burley bloke I knew. The man in the photo was a living skeleton. I asked Eric what happened, but he never spoke about it. I was a boy back then. I knew nothing of the horrors of Changi and what happened to Eric and many like him who slaved on the Burma-Thai Railway.

I first saw the original Happiness Box book in a touring exhibition of National Treasures. It showed me that books and reading, knowledge and education can also be a secret to happiness. And lurking deep beneath the surface of the original book was something deeply meaningful and important to me. It evoked images, memories and emotions. It had resonance. The original Happiness Box book was said to contain the secrets to happiness, such as friendship, kindness, generosity, loyalty, courage and hard work. Thinking back, these are the secrets that Eric taught me.


About the Author


Mark Greenwood, who has a passion for history and legends, is the author of many books for children, published both in the United States and in his native Australia.

His recent book, The Drummer Boy of John John, was honoured by Kirkus Reviews (“Best of 2012”) and the Bank Street College of Education Children’s Book Committee. The Donkey of Gallipoli, illustrated by his wife, Frané Lessac, was a CBC Honour Book and a USBBY Outstanding International Book.

His work has twice received the West Australian Premier’s Book Award. Jandamarra, illustrated by Terry Denton, was short-listed for the 2014 Children’s Book Council Awards. Mark’s latest books include The Mayflower, published by Holiday House, and Midnight, published by Walker Books Australia and New Zealand and Candlewick Press in the US.

The Happiness Boxby Mark Greenwood

The Happiness Box

A Wartime Book of Hope

by Mark Greenwood

An inspiring narrative non-fiction picture book by award winners Mark Greenwood and Andrew McLean.

In 1942, Sergeant “Griff” Griffin was a prisoner of war. With Christmas approaching, he decided to make a book for the children cooped up in nearby Changi Prison. The book was said to contain the secrets to happiness. But the enemy was suspicious … With this picture book, award winners Mark Greenwood and Andrew McLean bring to life the inspirational true story of a book that became a National Treasure.

This is the true story of Australian prisoners of war who created a picture book called The Happiness Box as a Christmas present for children interned in Changi Prison.

The book was written for children to chase away fear and give them hope, and contained the “secrets to happiness” such as the importance of friendship, kindness, compassion, generosity, loyalty, faith, courage and hard work.

The Happiness Box survived the war. It toured Australia along with Sir Don Bradman’s cricket bat and Ned Kelly’s helmet as part of the National Treasures exhibition from Australia’s great libraries. The book currently resides in the State Library of NSW.

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