Brain Pickings

The Book of Mean People: Toni Morrison’s Children’s Allegory about Kindness and Context


“Big people are little when they are mean. But little people are not big when they are mean.”

In 1999, Pulitzer-Prize-winning author Toni Morrison joined the ranks of other famous “adult” writers’ lesser-known and lovely children’s stories when she penned The Big Box — a darkly philosophical meditation on morality, imaginative freedom, justice, and self-sufficiency — in collaboration with her son, the painter and musician Slade Morrison. Three years later, the duo followed up with The Book of Mean People (public library), illustrated by the wonderful Pascal Lemaitre — a subversive allegory for the subjectivity of “good” and “evil,” how context and motive frame those, and why the power of optimism is our greatest psychological defense mechanism.

Somewhere between Twain’s irreverent advice to little girls and the faux-meanness of the facetious faux-unkindness Cat-Hater’s Handbook, the book nudges us to reconsider what “meanness” is and isn’t, and how a child’s assessment differs from a grown-up’s. The Morrisons’ dedication reads:

To brave kids everywhere
(mean people, you know who you are)

Though the book invites many interpretations, depending on your tolerance for the non-literal, its central premise returns again and again to the importance of kindness — something George Saunders would enthusiastically embrace — and reminds us that children, as well as the universal inner child in each of us, can always distinguish between “meanness” that is simply the discomfort of doing things we don’t want to do but should, and “meanness” that springs from truly mean-spirit intention, from anger, from one’s misguided attempt to feel big by making another feel small.

Complement The Book of Mean People with other previously uncovered children’s gems by Mark Twain, Maya Angelou, James Joyce, Sylvia Plath, William Faulkner, Gertrude Stein, Anne Sexton, T. S. Eliot, and John Updike.

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