THE BIG BOX
By Toni Morrison with Slade Morrison
Illustrated by Giselle Potter
Jump at the Sun/Hyperion, $19.99
A singsong refrain, with its weird images and forced rhyme, rings throughout this intriguing and unsettling first children's book from Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison and her son Slade:
"Oh, the seagulls scream
And rabbits hop
And beavers chew trees when they need 'em.
But Patty and Mickey and Liza Sue --
Those kids can't handle their freedom."
And what a book it is, its slyly subversive message camouflaged by what at first appear to be just more pretty pictures of children at play.
Inspired by a teacher who told Slade as a boy that he couldn't handle his freedom, "The Big Box" offers a perspective that children may find fascinating and adults may find disturbing.
As the story goes, the children are locked up one at a time in a big box after adults -- whether scowling teachers or nasty neighbors -- decide they can't "handle their freedom."
The door has three big locks and opens only one way, so parents can come in but kids can't go out. Parents are mostly absent except for brief weekly visits to bring gifts of a Barbie doll, a Spice Girls shirt, or mummified representations of the outside world: "a picture of the sky," "a butterfly under glass," "a jar of genuine dirt," "a film of a fresh running brook."
For instance, there's Patty, who
"had too much fun in school all day
And made the grown-ups nervous,
She talked in the library and sang in class
Went four times to the toilet.
She ran through the halls and wouldn't play with dolls
And when we pledged to the flag she'd spoil it."
"Oh Patty," they said, "you're an awfully sweet girl
With a lot of potential inside you.
But you have to know how far to go
So the grown-up world can abide you."
If the anarchy of "The Cat in the Hat" could be said to have the irritation quotient of a firecracker, this book has the explosive power of a pipe bomb. It's the message that adults might not always want what is best for kids, that adults would prefer children to sit still and shut up and do as they're told, that adults would like to shut kids up in a box and see them on their own terms.
Morrison, in a written interview provided by the publisher, said adults have found her story "weird" and "depressing." She also says she was told that because adults buy children's books, "No children's book that did not offer a reconciliation with the adult view was marketable. . . . It was disturbing precisely because it suggested a division, a conflict between a child's point of view and an adult's. That seemed to be a strong dismissal of children's intelligence."
Potter's brilliant illustrations perfectly complement the Morrisons' theme. For instance, the parents are never pictured, except for a half-profile of a mother disappearing out the door. And while the children are smiling while they're free, their faces are expressionless when they are depicted at play inside the box.
Adults who are uncomfortable with the message may not be appeased by the ending, showing the kids breaking out of the box.
Toni Morrison, speaking as a parent, explains why she portrayed children as boxed in: "I had in mind what all parents think about -- the difficulty of figuring out what is protection and what is suppression. What is freedom and what is license. An eternal and universal condition of parenting and of growing up. A very hard job."
She hopes children will hear in her book "the voice of another child who had the same questions they have."
"Thoughts about how much weight we give to 'things' in order to show love and caring. Thoughts about what our children really want and need from us."
This isn't the kind of children's book that seems destined to become a classic, beloved for either its story or its memorable characters, but the difficult message it contains will likely spark interesting discussions for the hardy teacher or children's librarian who decides to read it to the class. Or it might be something for the child psychologist to keep in the waiting room.
Jump at the Sun, a Hyperion publishing line celebrating African-American culture, will also publish another children's book from Morrison, tentatively titled "The Book of Mean People."