September 12, 2012
Toni Morrison also had trouble with publishers. At least she managed to get it in print — The Big Box, the first of several coauthored with her son Slade, first appeared in Ms. Magazine in 1980 and, 19 years later, was handsomely re-issued by Hyperon Books, illustrated by the same Giselle Potter who would eventually also illustrate Gertrude Stein’s To Do: A Book for Alphabets and Birthdays.
But the question of genre keeps coming up. The 33 customers’ reviews on Amazon (as of today) make for interesting reading. And the New York Times speaks for them all: “The Big Box resonates as a work of art, but it is not a book for children.”
What is a book for children? The idea is getting fuzzier and fuzzier in my head. The Big Box is about three kids who are locked away in a room-size box because they “can’t handle their freedom.” Slade himself was told this by one of his teachers – and probably not such a bad one either, since the grown-ups who say this to Patty and Mickey and Liza Sue do seem to be loving parents, teachers, neighbors. They discipline the kids, but they also make sure all their favorite things are in the box with them: comic books, Matchbox cars, a Jethro Tull poster, a Spice Girls T-shirt, an autographed basketball, “even a jar of genuine dirt.”
The book ends with these lines: “Oh, the porpoises scream/ And the rabbits hop/ And beavers chew trees when they need ’em/ But Patty and Mickey and Liza Sue–/ Who says they can’t handle their freedom?”
In Centuries of Children (1963), Philippe Aries argues that childhood is a relatively recent invention. It didn’t exist at all in the Middle Ages, began to take shape only among the upper classes from the sixteenth century onward, and turned into a full-blown reality only in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
For thousands of years there was no such thing as a “children’s book.”