Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Giselle Potter’

15 JULY, 2013

The Big Box: Toni Morrison’s Darkly Philosophical Children’s Book, a Collaboration with Her Son

By:

“Who says they can’t handle their freedom?”

In 1999, beloved author Toni Morrison teamed up with her son, the painter and musician Slade Morrison, and joined the ranks of other famous “adult” writers who penned lesser-known and lovely children’s stories. Together, they wrote The Big Box (public library) — the seemingly grim tale of Patty, Mickey, and Liza Sue, who are banished to live in a giant box because they “can’t handle their freedom,” having made no other transgression than the silly little disobediences and restlessnesses of which all children are “guilty.” No parents, teachers, neighbors, or fairy godmothers are there to rescue them from their cruel prison which embodies the curious duality of punishment and protection and illustrates our frequent, culturally chronic difficulty in distinguishing between the two.

The message, of course, is far less simplistic — the story, based on an idea Slade had when he was nine years old, which first appeared on the pages of pioneering magazine Ms. in 1980, deals with questions of morality, imaginative freedom, justice, and self-sufficiency. In the final scene, we see the three children break free of the box by their own ingenuity as the Morrisons pose the congratulatory question, “Who says they can’t handle their freedom?”

Conceptually, the book is reminiscent of Maurice Sendak’s insistence that children can handle darker, subversive themes and need not be cushioned into an artificial reality — something illustrator extraordinaire Sophie Blackall echoed in this fantastic interview. In fact, it is only recently that children’s literature became sugar-coated and euphemistic — throughout the lengthy history of children’s picture-books, from the Brothers Grim to Edward Gorey, authors have used the dark to illuminate the complexities of life.

The Big Box — the first of several such heart-warming mother-son collaborations — features art by the inimitable Giselle Potter, who went on to illustrate Gertrude Stein’s wonderful posthumously published alphabet book.

In an interview, Morrison addresses the underlying message and what the book is about:

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. (Although children participate enthusiastically in the “love me so buy me” pattern, I think they are taught to think that way and that on some deep level they know what is being substituted.)

[…]

[The "box"] is a soft, familiar, comfortable, everyday “prison” into which children are metaphorically placed when their imagination is suppressed or programmed.

The children in The Big Box are surrounded by a kind of perfection — they have the newest and best toys, they are in comfortable settings with soft chairs, treats of all kinds, including a fancy television set — but much of it is fake (a jar of dirt, a butterfly under a glass, a recording of a seagull), the doors only open one way, and there are multiple locks to keep the children from getting out.

Complement The Big Box 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.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

21 MAY, 2012

To Do: Gertrude Stein’s Posthumous Alphabet Book

By:

“Don’t bother about the commas which aren’t there, read the words. Don’t worry about the sense that is there, read the words faster.”

In 1939, Gertrude Stein penned her first children’s book, The World Is Round, whose dramatic story was featured in this two-part omnibus of obscure children’s books by famous authors of “adult” literature. The following year, Stein wrote an intended follow-up, titled To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays — a fine addition to my well-documented obsession with unusual alphabet books.

But publisher after publisher rejected the manuscript as too complex for children. (One must wonder what Maurice Sendak might have said to that.) The book was never published in Stein’s lifetime. In 1957, more than a decade after Stein’s death, Yale University Press published a text-only version and in 2011, more than half a century later, the first illustrated version true to Stein’s original vision was released, with exquisite artwork by New Yorker illustrator Giselle Potter.

In the press release for The World Is Round, Stein offered the following characteristically philosophical statement regarding her children’s writing, exuding the same dedication to the intertwining of form and meaning we’ve come to expect from her adult writing:

Don’t bother about the commas which aren’t there, read the words. Don’t worry about the sense that is there, read the words faster. If you have any trouble, read faster and faster until you don’t.

Z is a nice letter, and I am glad it is not Y, I do not care for Y, why, well there is the reason why, I do not care for Y, but Z is a nice letter.
I like Z because it is not real it just is not real and so it is a nice letter to you and nice to me, you will see.

Zebra and Zed.

A Zebra is a nice animal, it thinks it is a wild animal but it is not it goes at a gentle trot. It has black and white stripes and it is always fat. There never was a thin Zebra never, and it is always well as sound as a bell and its name is Zebra.

It is not like a goat, when a goat is thin there is nothing to do for him, nothing nothing, but a Zebra is never thin it is always young and fat, just like that.

Images courtesy of Yale University Press

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.