Celebrated writer Toni Morrison passed away one month ago today. She won the Nobel Prize for Literature, the Pulitzer Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and myriad other honors. She is best known for her eleven novels, among them Beloved and The Bluest Eye. But with her passing, I discovered another genre of Morrison’s writing: children’s literature! Morrison wrote nine books of children’s fiction — together with her son Slade Morrison — and one book of children’s nonfiction. Over the last month, I read all of them in the company of my eight-year-old daughter. They’re wonderful. Treat yourself and your kids to these gems. Warning: Spoilers for children’s picture books below!
In four books, the Morrisons retell classic tales with a thoughtful twist. In Who’s Got Game? The Ant or the Grasshopper?, the two insects have a great summer hanging in the park, but when fall comes, the ant gets to work, preparing for winter, while the grasshopper keeps making his music. In the cold winter, the grasshopper comes knocking at the ant’s door, asking for help. Condescending ant gives a haughty speech but grasshopper stands up for himself: “How can you say I never worked a day? Art is work. It just looks like play.” The Morrisons offer no tidy resolution. They just pose the question — “Who’s got game?” — and walk away.
In Who’s Got Game? The Lion or the Mouse?, the titular rodent pulls a thorn from the paw of the king of the jungle, but then starts making more and more demands in return, ultimately desiring to be king himself. The story ends with a remarkable role reversal, with a meditative lion achieving wisdom on a lonely hill.
In Who’s Got Game? Poppy or the Snake?, a grandfather tells his grandson about the time he got friendly with a snake until things turned bad. “Hey, man. I’m a snake. You knew that.” But the Morrisons gently twist this fable from Aesop to teach the importance of paying attention. The three Who’s Got Game? books are available as an audiobook, narrated beautifully by Toni Morrison herself.
In The Tortoise or the Hare, two social outcasts — a studious tortoise and an athletic hare — sign up for a race and show that you can set your own goal and win regardless.
In The Big Box, three children love to make noise, get dirty, and — you know — act like children. With each child in turn, the adults in their lives intervene: “‘Oh Patty,’ they said, ‘you’re an awfully sweet girl with a lot of potential inside you. But you have to know how far to go so the grown-up world can abide you.” Each child defends herself: “If freedom is handled just your way then it’s not my freedom or free.” But the adults put each child in a “big brown box,” filled with all kinds of wondrous things. Not their freedom, though. The candy-coated oppression drips from the pages of this book, but wait and see what happens when you put kids in a box.
Peeny Butter Fudge. What happens when grandma is in charge? In this delightful, rhyming story, mom goes to work and leaves her three children in grandma’s care with a strict schedule of activities. Grandma deviates from the schedule but knows that a sweet, nostalgic treat at the end of the day can soothe the most harried mom.
Please, Louise. Louise inhabits a frightening world: old houses, dark clouds, barking dogs. Until she gets to the library, that is. “Here is shelter from any storm. In this place you are never alone.” A sweet homage to libraries.
Little Cloud and Lady Wind. What do clouds do? They “terrify the earth with storm and thunder”! All but one cloud, that is. Little Cloud loves the earth and wants more from her life. One night, Lady Wind takes Little Cloud on a journey to discover all that a cloud can really be: “I am me and all the things I dreamed of.”
The Book of Mean People. Through the eyes of children (child rabbits, in this case), the Morrisons present all the people that appear mean to children in this picture book with just a handful of words per page. “My mother is mean. She says I don’t listen. She says, ‘DO YOU HEAR ME?’ I can’t hear her when she is screaming.” Or my favorite line: “My baby-sitter is mean. She says, ‘Hurry up. You are wasting time!’ How can I waste time if I use it?” Remember, “Big people are little when they are mean. But little people are not big when they are mean.” Truth.
As with most storybooks, these aren’t just about the words. The Morrisons have collaborated with a range of talented illustrators to bring these stories to life.
In the one children’s book that Toni Morrison authored without her son, Remember: The Journey to School Integration, she combines photos from the battle for school integration in the 1950s with captions that imagine what the children in the photos are thinking. The pictures are powerful — some hopeful, some frustrating, some enraging — and Morrison’s captions bring them to life.
My favorites were The Big Box and The Ant or the Grasshopper? I encourage you to discover your own, with or without children.