Thursday, September 16, 2010


MY VERY FIRST WE TOO WERE CHILDREN, MR. BARRIE POST was on James Joyce's letter-to-his-grandson-turned-picture-book The Cat and the Devil. The book has been illustrated and published two times, in 1964 with illustrations by Richard Erdoes and in 1981 in the US (1978 in France) illustrated by Roger Blachon. I received an email today from the Swiss publisher SJW Schweizerisches Jugendschriftenwerk that the Roger Blachon edition is now available in five languages including English. It doesn't appear to be listed on or, but it can be ordered directly from SJW on their website here in the section Google translates as "Swiss youth written work". Their press information, including the below image, isn't in English, so I can't offer more. It's just good to see an out-of-print book getting a second chance.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010


AS PER THIS BLOG'S INTRODUCTION, We Too Were Children, Mr. Barrie limits itself to twentieth-century, out-of-print books. Toni Morrison's The Big Box, highlighted yesterday, meets those requirements as the text was first published in 1980 and the now-out-of-print book version appeared in 1999. Since then, however, Morrison has published eight more picture books (all but one in conjunction with her son Slade Morrison), some of which remain in print. As a result, instead of the in depth discussion you are used to on We Too Were Children, I provide here a cover gallery with a few tidbits of info. Books that are still in print are linked to Amazon and I encourage everyone to buy them, whether it's on Amazon or at some other store. (I don't have an Amazon storefront and make no money off of these purchases. The links are just for your convenience.) They are:

The Book of Mean People (2002) by Toni Morrison with Slade Morrison, illustrated by Pascal Lemaȋtre. Like The Big Box, The Book of Mean People came out of Slade Morrison's childhood musings, which Morrison jotted down and later shaped into this book.

Who's Got Game: The Ant or the Grasshopper? (2003) by Toni Morrison with Slade Morrison, illustrated by Pascal Lemaȋtre. The Who's Got Game series was signed by Scribner as a six book deal. The series must have underperformed since it ended after only three books, which interestingly were later collected in an omnibus edition. The Morrisons' newest book (see below) brought out under the Simon and Schuster imprint (who own Scribner) is The Hare and the Tortoise. The Who's Got Game? concept was dropped as was the comic book format and illustrator Pascal Lemaȋtre.

Who's Got Game: The Lion or the Mouse? (2003) by Toni Morrison with Slade Morrison, illustrated by Pascal Lemaȋtre.

Who's Got Game: Poppy or the Snake (2004) by Toni Morrison with Slade Morrison, illustrated by Pascal Lemaȋtre.

Remember: The Journey to School Integration (2004) by Toni Morrison, illustrated with photographs. Morrison writes: "Because remembering is the mind's first step toward understanding, this book is designed to take you on a journey through a time in American life when there was as much hate as there was love..."

Who's Got Game: Collected Edition (2007) by Toni Morrison with Slade Morrison, illustrated by Pascal Lemaȋtre. Collection of the three previous Who's Got Game? titles.

Toni Morrison reads the book herself on the audio edition, and it is well worth getting your hands on. She reads with such command and expression that the otherwise only okay poetry comes to life and sounds important. You might want to have a hard copy with you as the illustrations do help with the narrative, but it's not essential.

Peeny Butter Fudge (2009) by Toni Morrison with Slade Morrison, illustrated by Joe Cepeda. This is Morrison's most personal picture book, about grandchildren visiting their grandmother and getting into all kinds of mischief with Nana as accomplice. There is no ambiguity to this text, and as a result it is Morrison's most comfortable children's book, good for toddlers.

Little Cloud and Lady Wind (2010) by Toni Morrison with Slade Morrison, illustrated by Sean Qualls. Ambiguity returns in this book about freedom, individuality, and communal responsibility.

The Tortoise or the Hare (2010) by Toni Morrison with Slade Morrison, illustrated by Joe Cepeda. A return to Aesop.

At the rate she is currently publishing--sometimes two children's books a year--Nobel winner Morrison will end up leaving a more substantial body of children's picture books than novels

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

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.

Friday, September 10, 2010


WHEN I LAUNCHED We Too Were Children, Mr. Barrie, I said in the Introduction that my goal was to highlight one author a week. For the first several months I met that goal, and then, as frequent readers know, this plan was horribly derailed by a time-consuming move (that seems to have no end--shades in the library, anyone?; a functional workspace in the basement?...). I made a strong comeback with my long-in-the-works series on Graham Greene, but I haven't had time to even touch the stack of books that will eventually lead to future posts. My work has been further hindered by a loss of library privileges, which has made getting materials rather difficult (a situation I am trying to remedy). I know how crucial frequent updates are to a blog's life, and it's eating me up that my blog has been so stagnant. So to avoid any nagging concerns or disappointments (is he ever going to post again? should I cancel my subscription?), I set out here a revised goal:

We Too Were Children, Mr. Barrie will continue to be updated indefinitely. These updates, however, will appear on an erratic and unpredictable schedule that will always strive for the platonic ideal of a new author a week. Realistically this will probably mean one to two authors a month, although I hold firm to the belief that life will normalize sometime in the near future and I can go back to devoting the several hours a day the blog required at its peak.

Now that that's in digital print, I can feel less guilt and pressure, and you can readjust your expectations, and everyone will be pleasantly surprised and happy when another unearthed treasure graces this blog. Be assured, I am working towards completing an enormous project that will be good for several weeks of posts (assuming people have continued interest in this author), and I have many other authors in various states of completion. For those of you who jumped on recently, there's still a strong backlog of posts to catch up on. For longtime readers, if you haven't been checking out the Flickr sets, there's great art there to peruse. And for diligent fans (okay, my family), there are other great blogs to check out on the Blogroll page.

Thanks to everyone who follows. ASW