“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.