cover image The Big Box

The Big Box

Toni Morrison. Hyperion Books, $19.99 (48pp) ISBN 978-0-7868-0416-0

Nobel laureate Morrison's debut book for children unfortunately shows little of the childlike perspective that so masterfully informs The Bluest Eye. This enigmatic tale, written in verse, is inspired by a story made up by Morrison's then nine-year-old son. The opening scene depicts two girls and a boy who live in a ""big brown box"" with a door that has ""three big locks."" The trio have been sent there by adults who think they ""can't handle their freedom."" Suburban Patty has ""too much fun in school all day"" (""When we pledged to the flag, she'd spoil it""); urban Mickey writes his name on mailbox lids and plays handball next to a sign that forbids the game; and country girl Liza Sue lets the chickens keep their eggs and feeds honey to the bees. Each child, when told that he or she has overstepped the bounds, counters with the identical unchildlike response: ""I know you are smart and I know that you think/ You're doing what is best for me./ But if freedom is handled just your way/ Then it's not my freedom or free."" The parents, never visible visiting the box, nonetheless leave behind plenty of parting gifts (e.g., ""Blimpies and Frisbees... and Matchbox cars that go""). In the final scene, the children, inexplicably, easily clamber over the sides of the big brown box to freedom. Potter's (Gabriella's Song) handsome illustrations in a postmodern folk-art style possess an austere simplicity, effectively marking the contrast to the adults' commercial bribes littering the floor. But ultimately the tale is mundane; the social commentary on childhood, freedom and the tendency of parents to give children things instead of time and attention seems aimed more at adult readers than children. Ages 8-up. (Sept.)