Tuesday, September 14, 2010


OF THE MANY WAYS that Ms. Magazine was groundbreaking, children's literature is not the first that comes to mind (if it comes to mind at all). But almost from its inception, Ms. Magazine included a feature called Stories For Free Children, stories for children meant as an alternative to the bulk of children's literature at the time that perpetuated stereotypes (often innocently) of gender roles, acceptable behavior, and traditional family life. One contributor, in the March 1980 issue, was Toni Morrison, author of Beloved (1987) and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993.

Morrison shared her byline with her then fifteen-year-old son Slade Morrison. Slade had been told by a teacher that he "couldn't handle his freedom." The phrase troubled him, and he and his mother discussed it at length. It was out of those discussions that Toni Morrison composed her story for free children The Big Box.

THE BIG BOX is a troubling text in its ambiguity. It is the story of three kids who are kept in a gilded cage, because their parents, teachers, and neighbors don't know how to handle them. The big box is a room filled with such delights that it is unclear whether it is punitive or protective.
Patty and Mickey and Liza Sue
Live in a big brown box.
It has carpets and curtains and beanbag chairs.
And the door has three big locks.
 The first child, Patty, lives in a traditional suburban environment. Patty, however, talks in the library, sings in class, won't play with dolls, and is disrespectful to the American flag. As a result, it's decided that she "just can't handle [her] freedom."

When her sentence is handed down, she replies with what becomes the book's refrain,
"I know you are smart and I know that you think
You are doing what is best for me.
But if freedom is handled just your way
Then it's not my freedom or free."
Despite her plea, she is placed in the big box, locked away from the rest of society and the natural world, and visited by her parents only once a week. But at the same time, she has Barbie, Pepsi, a Princess phone, Nikes, a Spice Girls Shirt, "and a jar of genuine dirt." However, these material goods don't satisfy her longing to live her life as she wants to.

Mickey is a city boy who makes "the grown-ups nervous." His activities smack more of juvenile delinquency than Patty's--graffiti, sitting on the super's car--and so his sentencing to the big box doesn't seem as harsh, but still "he avoid[s] their eyes/By lowering his little boy head," and delivers the refrain that freedom the adult way is not freedom.

Mickey's possessions include Blimpies, Frisbees, comic books, Matchbox cars, "and a record that played exactly the sound/Made by a living seagull."

The last child, Liza, is a country girl (completing the triptych of settings) who lets "the chickens keep their eggs."  She is sentenced to the big box by "the neighbors who loved her," and joins Patty and Mickey in their toy filled room, her consolation "a film of a fresh running brook."

The book ends:
Oh, the porpoises scream
And the rabbits hop
And beavers chew trees when they need 'em
But Patty and Mickey and Liza Sue--

Who says they can't handle their freedom?
NINETEEN YEARS AFTER THE BIG BOX APPEARED in Ms. Magazine, the story was illustrated (by the wonderful Giselle Potter, whose illustrations appear above) and released as a picture book by Hyperion Books. Despite the proliferation of books celebrating diversity and the importance of being oneself in the intervening years, Morrison met with resistance when she wanted to bring the book out. She was told by one publisher that "We don't publish books in which the child at the end is not reconciled with the adult point of view." It didn't help that it remains unclear what point of view any of the children take.

One important clue might be found in the mission statement for Stories For Free Children. In a collection of the stories honoring the tenth anniversary of Ms. Magazine, editor Letty Cottin Pogrebin writes:
Very simply, you're a free child if you are allowed to be yourself and be true to yourself. That means being free to express the way you really feel, and to develop your own talents and follow your own honest interests without having to measure up to other people's ideas of what a girl or a boy is "supposed" to be.
(It should be of no surprise that one of Ms. Magazine's charter subscribers was Marlo Thomas who was inspired by this very column to compile under the auspices of the magazine the classic book and album Free to Be...You and Me (1972).

Interestingly, the book's copyright page makes no reference to Ms. Magazine even though the book text differs from the magazine text only in updating pop culture references--Pumas to Nikes, Farrah Fawcett to Spice Girls, a Jethro Tull poster to an autographed basketball. The one notable change, and perhaps another clue, is the addition of the final question at the end of the book. In the magazine the poem ends with the hyphen.)

Morrison, however, had more in mind than just self-expression, at least when the book version appeared in 1999. In response to the query, "what is The Big Box about?," Morrison replied:
The plight (and resistance) of children living in a wholly commercialized environment that equates "entertainment" with happiness, products with status, "things" with love, and that is terrified of the free (meaning un-commodified, unpurchaseable) imagination of the young.
In another interview she said:
I'm sort of in an environment in which I see the consequences of [shielding children from the world]. Teaching at Princeton and even where I was at Albany and Yale, I see the consequences of children when they are 17 and 18 years old who, by the time they get to university, their only job is to win; their job is to not fail. You keep wondering and you want to scratch them a little bit to see what's really underneath that enormous burden and commitment. And sometimes that pressure is too great for them because it's not about learning. And when you learn, you have to experiment and you have to sometimes make mistakes, but they aren't allowed to make mistakes. They're trained to do it right the first time.
Unsurprisingly, a book with such a subversive and critical subtext, was not received well by critics. The New York Times summed it up, "The Big Box resonates as a work of art, but it is not a book for children." Although, according to one interviewer, children dive into the questions posed by the book while adults are simply puzzled by it. Regardless of whether or not it is a book for children, despite its potential for academic discussion, The Big Box in the end is a rather mediocre book.

I consulted many sources for this post that included the academic papers Not Safe For the Nursery by Chia-yen Ku and Trust Them to Figure It Out by María Lourdes Lopez Ropero. But most important were an interview conducted by Rob Capriccioso, Toni Morrison's Challenge, and the interview provided by Hyperion Books for publicity that can be read on Barnes & Noble's page for the book on the "Features" tab.

All images are copyrighted © and owned by their respective holders.


  1. Very interesting comment about the book. I think you should read it for yourself to determine whether it's a mediocre book or not. I found it to be one of the most thought provoking children's books I ever read.

  2. I don't post about any book I haven't read. Everyone's going to have a different opinion. I didn't think it was very good.

  3. impressed with your blog. Didn't even know about Morrison's other picture books until your blog. Sure do miss Jump at the Sun/Hyperion books. I've been working on a post about out-of-print pic books, and about Remembering; who knows when I'll finish the drafts though.