Under a shade tree near a public pool in Mount Rainier, Janet Tupper is sitting at a picnic table and reading a Toni Morrison book aloud to a trio of kids. It isn't "Paradise" or "Beloved" or any of the popular--and incredibly complex--adult novels by the Nobel Prize-winning author. It's a new book for young people: "The Big Box."
Written with her college-age son Slade, Morrison's "Big Box" is an exploration of freedom and values. The story-in-verse follows Patty, Mickey and Liza Sue, whose lives are full of material wealth--Legos and Barbies and Bubble Yum and Nikes. But what the kids really want is elbow room. Patty talks in the library and sings in class; Mickey hollers in the hall and plays handball in verboten places; Liza won't take eggs from chickens and she lets squirrels play in the fruit trees.
The exasperated grown-ups put Patty, Mickey and Liza in a nice comfortable big brown box. Time and again the children point out to the adults:
I know you are smart and I know that you think
You are doing what is best for me
But if freedom is handled just your way,
Then it's not my freedom or free.
After the book ends, Kelton Tupper, 5, says he liked everything about it. Kolbe Leonard, 7, says she "liked the Bubble Yum. That's real. My mom likes it."
Janet Tupper doesn't like it so much. Books for kids, she explains, shouldn't make parents look bad. "I think it's depressing," she says. "It's cruel. What's the moral?"
Her 9-year-old daughter, Janelle, however, thinks the book is pretty cool. Though she does admit to her mother that "the things the kids did were pretty wild."
Once again, Morrison has gotten folks talking. This is her first children's book and it's the most recent addition to a shelf full of works penned for kids by traditionally adult writers.
Over the years, a handful of serious authors have tried their hand at children's stories. Charles Dickens and Mark Twain wrote for kids. So did Oscar Wilde. Roald Dahl shuttled back and forth between worlds. As did E.B. White. England's poet laureate, Ted Hughes, wrote "The Iron Man" in 1968. (The story has been made into an animated movie, "The Iron Giant," that's in theaters now.)
In more recent times, John Updike and his son David, a photographer, collaborated on "A Helpful Alphabet of Friendly Objects: Poems," which reexamines everyday things such as hubcaps and oatmeal.
"Come Meet Muffin!" by Joyce Carol Oates was published last year. "Happy to Be Nappy" by bell hooks is coming out this fall. And in the spring of 2000, HarperCollins will be publishing a book for young folks written, and illustrated, by horror master Clive Barker.
What's next? Tom Clancy's "Clear and Present Snuggles" or Thomas Harris's "Pat the Cannibals"?
Marilyn Courtot has been publishing the monthly Children's Literature newsletter for teachers and librarians since 1993 from her home in Bethesda. Successful children's books, she says, spring from "understanding what young readers would be interested in, from writing with an eye toward something the kids can relate to. Not from an adult perspective."
She says, "You have to be able to talk on their level."
The challenge, says Courtot, is that "children don't bring to a book the wealth and breadth of knowledge that an adult would bring." Authors, she says, "might have to do a little more work putting things in perspective."
Disney Children's Book Group publisher Lisa Holton, who is publishing the books by Morrison and hooks under the Hyperion/Jump the Sun imprint, says that not everybody can write for youngsters.
"Writing for children is its own distinct art form," Holton says. The key, she adds, quoting legendary children's book editor Ursula Nordstrom, "is having a direct line to childhood."
"Writers either have it or they don't," Holton says. She speaks of some adult writers who have tried to write for kids and failed big time. She does not name names.
Holton heard Morrison's poem "The Big Box" when it was performed by a dance group. She persuaded Morrison to reshape it into a book. The story, she says, "is very much about issues that kids deal with."
"The Big Box" is for kids 8 years old and over, she emphasizes. "It's actually somewhat subversive."
Poolside, the book is cause for mild, good-natured disagreement between Janelle Tupper and her mother. After discussing the Morrison story, the three children sit and listen to "Come Meet Muffin!" by Joyce Carol Oates. It's a gentle story of a kitten who helps some fawns find their way home.
Wrapping herself in a beach towel, Janelle says she likes the way the kitten saved the deer. Kelton enjoyed the ending. Kolbe smiled at the part when one kitten kissed another. The kids say they would read other books by the same authors.
Janet Tupper's mother-in-law, Martha, who is visiting from Detroit and has a master's degree in children's literature, asks the kids which book they liked the best.
Janelle liked Toni Morrison's. Kelton, yawning, says he liked Oates's. Kolbe, pushing up her glasses and adjusting her swimsuit, says, "I liked, umm . . . both."