In her first illustrated book for children, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author Toni Morrison introduces three feisty children who show grown-ups what it really means to be a kid.
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If Pulitzer Prize-winning Nobel laureate Toni Morrison and her son Slade hope to reach children with their rhyming message of personal freedom and individuality, they may have missed the mark. But if even a few excessively controlling grownups learn to "let children be children," this big, colorful picture book might serve its purpose after all. Patty, Mickey, and Liza Sue live in a big brown box (locked from the inside) with all the amenities a modern child dreams of: TV, Barbie, pizza, Spice Girls T-shirts, beanbag chairs, and Pepsi. All this, but no liberty. They've been placed in this box because the adults in their lives believe "those kids can't handle their freedom." They have too much fun in school, sing when they should be studying, feed honey to the bees, and play handball where they shouldn't. Parents, neighbors, and teachers are uncomfortable with these irrepressible children, and hope to control them with strict boundaries. Meanwhile, the younger-yet-wiser children just want the freedom to become themselves: "Even sparrows scream/ And rabbits hop/ And beavers chew trees when they need 'em./ I don't mean to be rude: I want to be nice,/ But I'd like to hang on to my freedom."
Giselle Potter's lovely, childlike paintings create an atmosphere of naïve bewilderment, as the plaintive children wail, over and over, "If freedom is handled just your way/ Then it's not my freedom or free." Morrison's first foray into children's literature is a puzzling, thickly ironic book that asks more questions than it answers. Even as a celebration of the unfettered exuberance of children in the face of societal oppression, a lighter touch would have done wonders. (Click to see a sample spread. Text copyright 1999 by Toni Morrison. Illustrations copyright 1999 by Giselle Potter. With permission of Jump at the Sun, Hyperion Books for Children.) --Emilie CoulterFrom Booklist:
"Shades of the prison house begin to close upon the growing boy." Wordsworth's famous line could be the theme of Morrison's first picture book, coauthored by her son, who "devised" the story when he was nine. It's about three contemporary kids imprisoned because their imagination and spontaneity threaten the conformist adult world. Patty's a rebel in the classroom; she makes the heavy-browed, therapeutic grown-ups nervous. Mickey upsets his city neighborhood. Liza frees the animals on the farm. So, for their own good, the three children must be locked away in a big, brown box. The box is comfortable, even pretty, filled with cool consumer stuff, but there are three locks on the door, which opens only one way. Allthough the sing-song, rhyming narrative suffers from a didactic refrain about the joyful natural world outside, where animals scream, rabbits hop, and "beavers chew trees when they need 'em," Potter's large-size double-spread illustrations in naive style effectively contrast the stiff, luxurious details of the human prison with the openness and color of the primitive wilderness to which the triumphant rebellious trio escape and run with the animals in the light. Disobedience, nonconformity, and imaginative play are at the heart of many great children's books, from Maurice Sendak's 1963 classic, Where the Wild Things Are, to Rosemary Wells' subversive Timothy Goes to School (1981); in contrast, Morrison's story is simplistic and sentimental. Older kids may want to talk about the sinister prison images of dystopia, but the message about individual freedom is too heavily spelled out, three times in fact. The story will appeal most to adults who cherish images of childhood innocence in a fallen world. Hazel Rochman
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