Nobel Medalist Toni Morrison left her mark on the world of literature, including children’s publishing with her series of collaborations with her son Slade Morrison. Their picture book The Book of Mean People marks its 20th anniversary this month, with an enduring message of kindness to children navigating a hurtful world. A new generation will be introduced to the book, which was originally published in 2002, as Little, Brown Books for Young Readers released a special anniversary edition today, November 8. The new edition features an afterword from award-winning middle grade author Jewell Parker Rhodes.

Rhodes made for an ideal candidate to write the book’s afterword; she’d crossed paths with Toni Morrison in literary circles over the years and later went on to teach graduate seminars at Arizona State and Trinity College on Morrison’s work for adults. When she received the offer from LBYR, Rhodes said she was “absolutely delighted” to offer readers a look into the Morrisons and their literary legacy.

“It was an honor as a Black woman to set the work within the historical context of what she gives and brings to African American literature.” Rhodes said. “To demonstrate that it wasn’t just what [Toni] did with an adult novel, it was like a through line. It was the thread of her life, her artistic integrity, and artistic aesthetic.”

The Book of Mean People follows a young rabbit navigating a world whose lack of kindness becomes increasingly frustrating, and it struggles to find the language to communicate this to its parents. Looking back at the book’s original release in 2002, Rhodes believes it was “very much transgressive. I feel as though perhaps the world didn’t embrace it, or they didn’t quite understand it.”

Explaining why The Book of Mean People was so different from other picture books of its time, Rhodes said, “Toni gave the child agency to determine and make choices. It shines a spotlight on their interior life as well as their exterior actions. And that was so radical. It was nothing different than what she would have done for an adult, except it was a child who was not to be bossed about, not to be instructed.”

The picture book’s illustrations done by Pascal Lemaître give the book “a great complex synergy,” Rhodes said. “I’m fabulously enamored of the idea of how the illustrations add and supplement and amplify the message of the story.”

Toni and Slade Morrison collaborated on their first picture book in 1999 with the release of The Big Box. The Book of Mean People was the second of several subsequent books that the mother-son duo worked on together, including Who’s Got Game? The Ant or the Grasshopper?, Peeny Butter Fudge, and Please, Louise.

With the Morrisons’ work being passed onto a new generation, Rhodes hopes their message of empathy, agency, and visibility for children will comfort young readers and parents alike.

“I think there is a through line that is timeless,” Rhodes said. “It’s kind of sad sometimes that we think of kids as outgrowing picture books, but I think, actually, picture books are the height of artistry, and no one ever outgrows them.”

The Book of Mean People (20th anniversary edition) by Toni Morrison and Slade Morrison, illus. by Pascal Lemaître. Little, Brown, $18.99 Nov. 8 ISBN 978-0-316-34967-3